Most of my first memories are bad…
Searching for a favorite stuffed animal I’d lost.
Watching my dog get run over when I was about 6. (Sorry, Bull. Miss you.)
My dad throwing away a letter from my first best friend (who moved away when we were still in kindergarten) thinking it was just a piece of garbage on my floor.
When I was 5 or so, I was excited about the appearance of the garbage truck – massive and smelly and noisy – in the alleyway behind our house in Phoenix.
That was how boring my childhood was: watching the garbage truck drive by was a high point in my day.
On that fateful day, though, I got so excited about the whole thing that I started rhyming made-up words with “garbage truck”.
Logically, I discovered profanity several seconds into this experiment: my mom turned purple with rage as I chanted “garbage buck, garbage duck, garbage fuck”. (I might have said “cuck” too, but that totally wasn’t a thing, way back in 1987.)
Innocent mistake, valuable lesson.
Who knew made-up words could have so much impact on adults?
A few years later, a friend from school actually explained the meaning of the word “fuck” – my mom never had.
It involved peeing all over some girl’s butt, he said. A fourth grader he knew had done it to a girl from his class.
It was apparently something to aspire to.
It took me several years after that to find out that my friend was wrong about the mechanics of sex, too. I made it to the early 90s without knowing that peeing on a girl’s butt was not a great plan for a date – unless you’re really into that sort of thing.
Oh, to go back to those days when fourth graders seemed like the height of sophistication and adult knowledge!
A couple years later, in about the third grade, I rebelled against having to do long multiplication and write in cursive.
My teacher told me I should seek professional help. Apparently, I was a “very troubled little boy”. Rebellious and unimpressed with the “authority” of adults.
She was the first in a long line of older people to tell me I needed to get my head examined, or at least medicate myself in order to conform to society’s expectations of what’s “normal”.
Of course, when I was 8, I couldn’t exactly afford to go to a shrink. And my parents weren’t throwing down benjamins for the cause either.
So that plan ended before it even began.
What I really got out of the whole thing was a massive aversion to authority for authority’s sake – I’m a teacher, so do what I say, dammit! – and the belief that I just wasn’t cut out to be “normal”.
(I don’t think I’ve written the word “normal” without quotes around it for about the last 20 years. So suck it, authority.)
Anyway, not all the memories were bad…
Searching around back there, in the vague and fuzzy depths of mind, I’ve got a few more positive things.
Singing religious songs in Spanish at my preschool. Running around during recess while a teacher sprayed us with a hose. A couple of the teachers, good people, who mostly just sat us in a circle to play games.
Coloring with crayons with my kindergarten crush, a dirty blonde named Karen.
The elementary school, right down the street from home, testing its air raid siren every Sunday at noon. Woooooooooooooooooooooooo…
Riding my tiny bike and picking up shells on the banks of the little canal that flowed through our quiet barrio in the Valley of the Sun.
(What happened to Karen? Why canals and not pipes? Really, an air raid siren? These are the questions I ask myself now.)
Anyway, little did I know…
Life in the Sonoran wasteland
Turns out, trouble was brewing for little Mr Chorizo.
The barrio was going downhill – I suspect that means my parents saw a teenager walking unescorted, perhaps wearing a backwards baseball cap.
I can only imagine the conversations my mom and dad had in their bed at night, after my sister and I were asleep: the LA street gangs were clearly moving in on our territory. It was time to get out.
Get while the gettin’s good, as they say.
And get we did.
We moved from our little postwar neighborhood down south to a bigger house in the middle of the desert, about 30 miles north.
And when I say “in the middle of the desert” I mean that quite literally.
We were on a dirt road between two paved ones: in 2 miles of dust and dirt and scrub brush and cacti, there was just our house and (a mile down) an ostrich farm.
Those first years in the desert, we had to drive 30 minutes to buy food at some big warehouse shop. For miles around the house, there was nothing but the ostrich farm and a lot of cacti.
In fact, I can name 13 types of cacti. How about you?
Later, there were also a few new neighbors who were greeted with great suspicion when they started clearing off patches of desert to build their new houses.
It was there, in the Sonoran wasteland, that I was introduced to real boredom.
And that boredom is still my principal memory of life before moving to Spain – mind-numbing, soul crushing boredom, every day, always.
Oh yeah… that and heat.
The American Dream
I grew up to be a pretty miserable teenager.
All the adult prophecies about how I’d be a rebel came true.
But here’s the thing: in Phoenix in the 90s, rebelling meant wearing a black t-shirt or listening to any music made after the Beatles broke up. So it was actually pretty easy.
Most of what I remember from those times involves sitting in a plastic desk in some boring-as-shit math class, wishing I was somewhere far away. I spent a lot of time wandering around in the desert after school.
I became the unescorted teenager who convinced the douchebag yuppies that their neighborhood was going downhill – but by that time the neighborhood was full of stucco McMansions on cul-de-sacs.
People living the American dream of driving a gas guzzler 2 hours a day and keeping the neighbors at a distance. People who’d go to town hall meetings and protest every gas station being build within a 10-mile radius. Typical NIMBYs.
One day, on one of my long walks, a whole neighborhood association came out to shout me off their “private” street.
My dad, in those days, was into “yard work” as a hobby – which in the Sonoran wasteland involved raking gravel into straight lines, moving large quantities of dirt (and sometimes manure) and clipping away at spiny grey plants.
In the desert, everything is spiny and grey.
In school, in Social Studies class, we’d learn valuable lessons like “shake out your shoes before putting them on… a scorpion might have climbed in during the night.”
One of the high points of my childhood involved my dad chopping the heads off of rattlesnakes in the back yard. This happened about twice a year. He’d see a rattler, grab the flat-bladed shovel, and go out to face the deadly serpent.
The tension in the air was palpable as he’d stare them down, shovel blade poised inches above their necks, both man and snake waiting for the right moment to strike.
It seems like this sort of showdown happened a dozen times – our suburban wasteland version of the Wild West shootout at high noon.
And my dad always won. He’d skin the snakes, and one day decided we should cook one.
It writhed while we skinned it, writhed while we gutted it, and was still writhing an hour later in a plastic salad bag in our fridge. Creepy as fuck, to have a skinless dead snake twisting and writhing in your hand.
(For some reason, the snakes never thought to just slither off the other way and avoid the showdown. Stupid snakes.)
You know what tastes like chicken?
Chicken does. Not rattlesnake.
We boiled the snake in a pot of rice. It tasted like rubber bands.
But hey. There’s more…
Our house had a couple of bookshelves.
Most of the books were in Russian, and the rest were completely incomprehensible. Maybe I learned to love language through simple osmosis, but at the time I couldn’t get through a full page of H.L. Mencken’s The American Language.
From a real Amazon review I just found: “Are you kidding me? H. L. Mencken is THE definitive authority on the American Language. Anyone who fancies him/herself a semanticist MUST have this work in his/her library.”
Well, at least one of my parents fancied him/herself a semanticist, and had all kinds of books that were at this/that level of absolute/total boringness.
In any case, mixed in with the semantics and philosophy and Russian poetry, there were two books about Buddhism.
I cracked one open when I was about eleven, and read the story of young Siddartha Gautama, the Indian prince, who left his parents house, meditated a lot, and discovered:
- All life is suffering.
- The root of suffering is desire.
- To end suffering, you must end desire.
- The fourth Noble Truth, which I always seem to forget.
All this seemed pretty logical to my pre-teen mind. And the “all life is suffering” part really resonated with me.
I tried meditating for a while when I was a pre-teen, and picked it up again later when things seemed to be going badly. The promise of a release from suffering in this life sounded way better than a hypothetical trip to heaven after I died. And nobody in my family ever told me about God or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, so Buddhism is just where I landed.
Many years later, I found out that I was reading bad translations from Sanskrit, and that “all life is suffering” is a common misunderstanding of the dharma – I didn’t actually have to be a miserable asshole because Buddha said so.
In any case, I started telling people I was a Buddhist soon after…
And quickly discovered that to the religious fanatics in Phoenix, anything that’s not creepy evangelism is essentially the same as worshipping Satan.
“Do you sacrifice chickens? Do you believe in dinosaurs and other incarnations of the Beast? What’s it like knowing that you’re going to hell?”
Those are just some of the more intelligent questions I got from members the Abrahamic sects back in those days.
(Turns out, the existence of dinosaurs was pretty controversial to Abrahamists. I’d grown up with plastic dinosaurs, stuffed dinosaurs, dinosaur picture books, illustrated encyclopedias of dinosaurs. Who knew they were considered by some to be fantasy creatures?)
In retrospect, I probably should have just started worshipping Satan.
But instead, I stopped talking about Buddhism.
In any case, meditation changed my life.
I’ve never practiced organized Buddhism, but I’ve done enough mindfulness meditation to say categorically that you really just need to shut the fuck up and breathe for a few minutes. Most (or all) of your “problems” are just illusions of monkey mind.
The evangelists ensured that my life in Arizona was full of suffering – Buddha was right in that – but I guess they weren’t all bad.
In 11th grade chemistry class I sat behind a suuuuuper Christian girl who claimed she was praying for my soul every night. I found the thought comforting. And she was very nice.
Later, she told me her Christian friends had abandoned her because she’d given her boyfriend a blowjob. We were supposed to be studying the periodic table, but of course, BJs were more important to talk about, for obvious reasons.
Anyway, one blowjob in their 3 years of relationship, and suddenly she was the village slut. Guess she was supposed to hold out for marriage.
Godwads gonna godwad.
Luckily, my dating pool was full of girls who couldn’t wait to lose their virginity…
Now if only any of them were into me!
“The Real World”
I guess I should mention at this point that I was a very good student…
And at the same time, they wanted to kick me out of every school I ever attended.
(Except university, later on, which I dropped out of.)
In any case, I wasn’t the typical science nerd.
I just found the whole thing easy. Passed the tests, insulted the teachers, barely did my homework, still managed to get almost straight As.
My one C was in calculus class in 10th grade, when I was way too hormonal for one of the European exchange students to focus on organizing numbers in matrices.
(I’ve long since forgotten exactly why one would need to organize numbers in a matrix, but I could still tell you dozens of things about that exchange student. Damn was she hot! Anyway, I guess that C explains why I didn’t get into Stanford. And the girl partially explains why I eventually moved to Europe. Funny how that works.)
In general, though, I found school to be useless and depressing.
It seemed like we were mostly being taught to follow orders from people who were largely stupid, to sit in straight lines, to do things that are both boring and completely pointless for most of the week.
Which, of course, is exactly what the economy needs people to do in their “careers”.
Welcome to the Dilbertverse.
Starting in 6th grade, our teachers were constantly trying to horrify us about the realities of “the real world”.
Having any sort of personality? That was out.
Expressing your true thoughts and feelings? Better not. It might end up on your permanent record. Which would keep you out of a “real” cubicle job forever.
You don’t want to end up working in a car wash when you’re finally out there in the real world, do you?
Okay. So sit down.
Do what I say.
I’m an authority. And the authorities are in control here.
So that’s that… Mr Chorizo’s origin story
Maybe it sounds a bit depressing.
There were probably more good things happening while I was growing up, and there were definitely more bad things.
But looking back, I have a sense of humor about the whole thing.
Everybody you see is locked in their own monumental struggle that you know nothing about.
So let’s be good Buddhists and practice some compassion.
There’s an actual Buddhist “exercise” called loving-kindness meditation which I really encourage you to check out. Whenever I do it, it makes me feel great about everything.
Even about the jerks who – inevitably – cross my path.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed that.
Don’t forget to breathe.
And one more thing…
Mr Chorizo AKA Mr Daniel.
P.S. Want more stories from my life? I’ve got quite a series at this point. This one was the superhero prequel, so if you want more, I guess you can start with my move to Spain at Days and nights of love, wine and cholesterol.