Our Social Suicide
If a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less but to dream more, to dream all the time. - Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past
Don’t let your dreams be dreams. - Shia LeBouf, reading Nike ads
Who the fuck are you?
Hello. I am Peter DePaulo. Peter Nathaniel DePaulo. I’ve got a lot of nicknames.
I’m lucky to be here. Both of my parents had compelling reasons not to exist before my birth. They had opposite life paths that brought them equal measures of pain. The kind of suffering that makes a person find solace in some inelastic resource; like alcohol. And thus, unsurprisingly they became alcoholics. My half brother and sister and my ‘full-blood’ brother (all of them I size up as more than full people - they are cherished) experienced the immediate backlash of alcoholism; the chaotic discordance that effuses from people making irrational decisions.
I did not.
The highlight reel rolled through stories of first-hand eye witnesses. The old scars and the fresh tears born of stale moments. It’s been the smoke cloud after the atomic bomb. The effects of the fallout on my family and it’s extensions. I’ve never really known how severe the blast was.
It’s nice to meet you.
I am the type of person who gets off on quoting Fyodor Dostoevsky in times like these, after letting the computer spell his name. All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. I’m the kinda pretentious, condescending snob who tells you with glee that actually that quote was from Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina. Even though I have never read it. It’s in my brain because of a book about starting companies by Peter Thiel. The whole concoction is laugh-lout-loud funny to me.
Because if you were here, I’d be winking at you. It’s not that I am putting one over on you, this is a dance between you and me. There’s song in my soul that plays in a chaotic, repetitive pattern without ever actually repeating. You’ve got one too. Our lives are the dance that the music compels us to groove to. You do you. I’ll do me.
I was born a tyrant. A precocious emperor who commanded attention. Small, fast, and easy to miss. But you could not ignore me. This has been a theme for all of my life. The need to be heard. This universal human need bared back by the loving fangs of our peers. I craved an audience, and still do. You have always been the most important thing to me.
You reader, are my audience. Whoever you may be: I really hold in the highest regard. I imagine you to be smart and elegant. Smart enough to get my jokes and smarter still to see how I over-thought them; rewriting this sentence several times to make it perfect for you. And still missing the mark.
I appreciate that you recognize my purposeful bending of the English language to fit my oratative (rhymes with authoritative) style of writing. You put up with my abuse of grammar. You can relate to the twang of Mark Twain; the futuristic, hopeful echoes of David Mitchell; the self-indulgence and ill-advised F. Scott Fitzgerald; and the just-fucking-do-it from Stephen King.
You are the type of gal or guy who watches a movie and appreciates it both in earnest and ironically at the same time. This above all: you are down to earth. You keep it real. You are one who lives in a paradox. And I am here to tell you that we live in that paradox together.
My childhood reads like the nemesis of a prodigy. As parvus tyrannum, I did terrible little things.
At two, a circuit made of wire found itself plunged into a socket. The explosion of the attached lightbulb blew the breaker of the house to my great delight.
At three, on the advice of my brother I scaled the back of the chair my long-suffering mother was reading in, and peed on her head. I was justifiably punished.
At four, in Tennessee, threats of real corporal punishment for less were projected into minds of the youth by racist adults. A teacher’s book met the force of my head when I threw an eraser at a female classmate.
At five, back in California, a fire in a broom closet.
Around my sixth birthday was my first curse word. A fit of red, painful rage exploded into the air directed at my offending oldest brother. At the time, “bitch-bug” was the best thing that young mind could offer. Kindergarten couldn’t hold me in, so they held me back. “Too rambunctious”.
Skip to nine and ten, “Are you a dummy?” questioned my third and fourth grade teacher. Moved from the charter school that proffered ‘conjoined years’ and ‘learn by doing’ to a public school that featured ‘pink slips’ and ‘permanent records.’
A quick tangent.
There were two remarkable individuals at that charter school. Erica, and Johnny. Erica and Johnny are brother and sister. You could tell even then that they were wicked smart. They both ended up going to Stanford if that means anything to you. Although, Stanford optimizes for moderate risk investments in legacies, not happiness.
The most recent interaction with Johnny was an extrapolation of one of my more awkward childhood memories. Through happenstance, their family brought me along to Michael Jackson’s ranch before it shut down. The ranch used to have a bunch of fair-esque roller coasters that one could ride for free.
The embarrassing memory: It was Johnny, Erica, another guy and me in a ferris wheel. At the very top, I yelled down at their dad “You should join us up here Mr. Redacted” but said the wrong name. Johnny angrily corrected me.
That was what I messaged Johnny recently, saying “there is a part of me that’s still embarrassed about that haha.” For some reason the weight of that exchange sunk into that little boy on the top of that ferris wheel. Awkwardness wielded is a superpower. I don’t know what Erica and Johnny are doing now, but think about them from time to time. I hope they are doing great.
Fifth grade, Mrs. Williams, a diabetic who you could bribe with Krispy Kreme donuts, told me “you’re not going to pull the wool over my eyes.” I read a book about segregation and found a deep, righteous anger in the core of my bones. Freedom is a right for everyone. It still makes me tear up. That year, music made it’s debut in my life.
Sixth grade, “You’re not going to ruin my retirement year!” Mrs. Burke had hawk-like features and owlish glasses. She thought that “art” was transposing a small picture of garfield into a large picture of garfield. We used a grid to help with the translation. Every single recess was dispensed writing misdeeds and daily offenses on a piece of paper. Freedom began to whisper in my ears. This was a turning point.
We were presented California’s educational requirements for sixth grade. On happenstance, those for seventh grade were on the back of the sheet. The bar was set very low, which says a lot about American education. Thus, I persisted every morning and night for more than a month making a case to my tired, lovely mother. If she would only enroll me in an independent study program, sixth and seventh could be finished in a year. Freedom was screaming at me. This was survival.
The case was won. Wings burst from back and I took flight. It was a year of exploration and real learning. The acquisition of knowledge was no longer bound by garfield in a grid. Dissected plants told the secrets of botany, books on samurai sternly lectured on feudal Japan. I played shogun for the show-and-tell hosted by the independent study program; elaborate hakama and all. I studied Egyptian hieroglyphics. More Shakespeare implanted itself in my mind. Proust and Pushkin argued with each other in my dreams.
The only cost of this liberty was going in and taking tests to prove that television was not my primary professor. State standardized tests were administered at an adult night school. During breaks over orange juice and crackers, I pretended to read near other students; the deeply captivating older girls with leopard print tights talked about smoking cigarettes. Anything different. Anything new. I also learned to play the saxophone like a mother fucker.
It may have been the wrong choice when given the opportunity to reintegrate into the public school system as an eighth grader.
The formative years of our human adolescence are almost unanimously agreed to be those within the confines of the middle school penitentiary. I was short, fat, loud and marked. I did not fit into any single group. I loved with my whole, vulnerable, fat little heart. I tried so, so hard to just coalesce into a cohort. They say that when you’re going through hell… you should keep going.
A quick tangent.
There was a best friend growing up. His name is Will. We are Facebook friends now and I’d grab a coffee with him if he invited me. I would invite him too, but neither of us will ever find the time. We were thick as thieves before our ages hit the double digits. We ran around covered in mud and the joys of a carefree youth in the exurbs. We got bitten by bugs, threw rocks, dirt clods and lemons. We swung from tire swings, and ran from his neighbor’s pet pig.
We watched Star Wars: Episode One in the theaters together. We boogie boarded in the summers. We played legos after school in the winters. I ate yellow cake with chocolate frosting with his family during birthdays. I still remember the distinct taste of his mother’s homemade frosting. There were animals, we were animals. We shared a sunny childhood.
Still in eighth grade. Will went to the middle school that was target of reintegration. We had diverged somehow. I don’t remember now why. The blanks in my memory are filled with “I chose the nerd archetype and he played sports”, but that is an artificial amalgam of what really happened. And the truth is lost in the grayscale of the past. Suffice it to say Will was popular and athletic.
I didn’t get “it.” There was a brief period of time spent orbiting the clique that occupied the small patch of green in the blacktop at that middle school. It was obvious that I didn’t fit in the same way my shirts weren’t a fit on me: too baggy to hide the folds of skin I was embarrassed to have. So a young voyeur watched them engage, vying for power and flirting with each other. Unaware of their interactions. It was crashing sound in my mind when I realized my dance moves were fodder for jokes, rather than actually being impressive. Being humored, patronized and digested later is far worse than honest rejection.
I was ejected. Every day was a fountain of creative torment and earned nicknames. I can’t remember if I actually had “man boobs,” but I hunched with the weight of the reminders that I did. My body met punches and kicks. A locker slammed itself into my head. My brow made friends with a hockey stick and a suture needle. I was disliked, or an unwilling scapegoat for teen angst. My imagination gave me the power to fight back, but I was teased when it possessed my body into made-up karate moves.
At thirteen, in eighth grade expression of poetry was more rewarding than its consumption. Proust had given up on me, and Pushkin’s cloudy sentiments condemned me. I learned more shakespeare. I played more music. I walked between the hard lines of reality, and the fantasy I escaped to. I made claymation and soldered robots. I ate too much carl’s junior. I listened to The Shins. I tried to kill myself.
Another quick tangent.
My dad has always been a gun nut. He taught me how to dismantle, clean and re-mantle rifles and pistols at seven. I learned to load cartridges around that age as well (‘bullets’ are just the projectile that goes into a ‘cartridge case’). I was gifted a twenty-two caliber rifle around ten. I got a Remington 270 hunting rifle at twelve. It was a lot of fun, though maybe it doesn’t fit into the future of California. He also told me to protect the house when he was gone and gave me the code to the gun safe when I was twelve.
Still eighth grade. My sweaty, fat, little heart had been beaten down by all the insecure kids. And I didn’t have the constitution of a revolutionary. They say that baby rattle snakes deliver more venom than the adults, and that is doubly true for homo sapiens. Higher doses of violence, higher doses of ridicule. The strings that held me up were cut and I came tumbling down into the first pit of despair that I had ever experienced. It felt like there was no one. Empty and dysfunctional, I just watched other people.
My fragile wings were torn to shreds.
It was a sunny day and a particularly nasty fight, which my mom left in a storm. I was alone in so many ways. The gun safe opened to hands that had only just learned to work a combo lock. A Beretta 9mm had already been decided. A replica version that shot little plastic BBs was nestled in the desk in my room, so it seemed poetically apt. The real one was heavier. I pulled it into my adolescent hands and fiddled with the safety, touched the coarse handgrip, it felt so real. It was so real. It was surreal. I eyed the necessary cartridges and closed the safe to “handle my affairs.” I climbed under a blanket in the living room for final considerations. A car was rolling into the driveway.
My mom had come back. She asked me what I was doing facedown under the blanket and I responded honestly. Long talk. Emotional. Tears. Didn’t go to school for a few days.
Okay, so I didn’t try to kill myself. I contemplated killing myself. Everyone has teen angst, right? I made a choice that year, sitting in the dark looking at a Python IDE learning to program. I would learn people instead of computers. I would never let them crush me like that again.
Fourteen, First year of high school. Still fat. I was in the marching band. That’s a winning combo with the ladies. I started learning to breakdance. I started losing weight. I had gotten used to bullies and rejection. I started my “social experiments”. It was input-output: with no gut feeling for what people liked or what they disliked. An alien learning to act human. In hindsight, this gave me the distinct advantage of not just intuiting social interactions, but understanding the honesty beneath them.
Fifteen, I was saved. Not my soul - that would come later. Mrs. Swanson, my English teacher shook me and asked “Why aren’t you in theater?” Without an answer I auditioned for theater. I began to blossom. I read books about body language. I read books about “picking up chicks.” I read books about hypnosis. I read books about physics and King Arthur. I lost more weight from breakdancing. I just barely started growing taller too. I got the lead roles in the high school plays. Life started to be fun again. First girlfriend, first kiss; I missed her lips. Awkward like sword without a handle.
Sixteen, Hallelujah I found Jesus (I would lose him again later). I was wearing dress shirts to school and occasionally lab coats. The best way to heal the world was to become a doctor. High school was stifling. I once again spread my wings and flew through a loophole. Junior college classes served doubly as high school and college credits. This allowed me to take the minimum four periods of classes at the high school and still count as a full time student.
The best part? Theater was technically two periods after school. Thanks to whoever established that precedence, I strolled in at lunch for ceramics and math. Then dove into the words and worlds of playwrights of the past till about 4:30.
The college classes were better than high school. They were online, so people couldn’t see my looming five-foot-two presence. And the teachers weren’t trained to be prison guards. I graduated a year early with a year and half of college credits. I got caught buying weed, but that’s a story for another time. Sharp like a sword without a handle.
Seventeen, the amphibious year. I wasn’t quite a high school senior and I wasn’t quite a college freshman. I was confident. A junior college is a mixing pot. All these four-year universities claim to have what a lot of JCs humbly offer: a good education and a diverse student body. Real people who had gone out and done real things. I met real estate brokers, and artists. I met stoners and oddballs. I met people with kids that were coming back to school. I met optimistic, hard-working and dedicated individuals. They laughed with rather than at me. We rooted each other on. I learned to play the bass guitar like a mother fucker.
Eighteen to twenty-ish. “College”. I started my second freshman year as junior on paper. I met a lot of whiny, entitled, sheltered kids. The premedical students mostly had no heart. There was little solidarity, and less mutual cheering. Thankfully, there were more marvelous people than those who were listless. Do what it takes to hold on to the marvelous ones.
Let’s not get into the classic college experience. You can get that anywhere. I made lifelong friends here. I fell in love. I dyed my hair. I had a mohawk. I bought a motorcycle. I played guitar. I got depressed. I came out of it. I got drunk and smoked weed. I ditched classes, I went to others. I learned to speak mandarin.
I decided being a doctor wasn’t impactful enough. Medicine as an institution is severely broken. The doctors at the hospital I volunteered for were mechanics, not healers.
I never stopped watching people and the rules I’d learned hadn’t changed. I started writing them down. I iterated through several conceptual professions, trying different flavors of Peter.
A quick tangent
There is an idea that I’ll call the universal conservation of behavior. It goes: the social patterns children follow are conserved into adulthood; these specific patterns are additionally conserved across cultures. There are more formalities and layers of sophistication, but we don’t change much in what we need from one another. This is easy to understand and easy to forget. One of the many reasons people are so intriguing. A silver thread drawing things together.
In my last year of college, twenty-one and up. I started a project with my roommate. The idea was simple enough: an app that allowed students to post and share digital flyers. We got some interest and had a fun name: Campulus. We found another company that was further along in the process that had received funding so we emailed them. Long story short we ended up working for them in the bay area.
That company was inducted into an “accelerator” which is just a bunch of high strung people getting together, drinking coffee, and talking about how much work they have to do. I got a lot out of it. I met really fascinating characters with phenomenal track records. I spent a lot of time at Stanford. I also took graduate classes online in environmental science at a different school. I started programming. I broke into tech in the same way a busboy working on a screenplay has made it to Hollywood.
Now, just shy twenty-five. Several projects later. A survey of energy in coastal Nicaragua. More depression. More joy. A broken and mended heart. And a desk job programming meaningless online software. Code is overrated, and sure, we’re probably in a ‘technology bubble.’ But it’s my vehicle of choice for the time being.
People are people. Friends are friends, and sometimes they’re not. Looking out into the world, I can’t help but feel destined for greatness and doomed to defeat. I am a slave to capitalism. An emperor waiting to happen. A pharaoh of self, driving the fat little guy inside of him to try to build the pyramids.
All I know is that I feel confined. I’m sure you know what I mean. The call of freedom beats in me, the music of my soul crescendos and I feel my wings beginning to tingle once again.
Can you feel it?