How My Liberal Arts Education “Brainwashed” Me.
Part 2: Scars and Heretical Healing
There’s a song out now that gets played on a lot of radio stations. It’s called “Bad Things” by Camilla Cabello and Machine Gun Kelly. If you’ve turned on a radio in the past two months you probably know what song I’m talking about. In the song’s refrain, Machine Gun Kelly’s voice pops in with some backup vocals and says, “Scars on my body so I can take you wherever.”
Of course Machine Gun is talking about scars acquired in the throes of erotic ecstasy and I’m sorry, but scars? Really? Scratches maybe, but SCARS? Who are you having sex with, Wolverine? Honestly, the song really isn’t that good. The chorus is catchy but if you really listen to the lyrics it sounds like the songwriter read the back cover of 50 Shades and then asked, “Hey, what if the guy in this story wasn’t a billionaire, but lived in a trailer?”
If you really, REALLY want to make a philosophical defense for the song you could argue that it takes something like scars which are usually something people try to hide and cover up and turns them into something to be celebrated and/or treasured. Personally, I think you could make that argument for any sort of scar, not just ones you got while knocking boots with Wolverine.
If you haven’t been busy banging the X-Men, you may have acquired a scar or two from battling monsters. Everyone has their own monsters. I’ve got a variety of them and sometimes they bellow louder than other times. They were particularly loud my freshman year of college. I did my best to hobble away from them. Sometimes I could even convince myself that I was like Hector of Troy and I turned around to fight them.
It didn’t really work out well for Hector when he stopped running from Achilles and turned around to fight him. And even when I puffed myself up enough to turn around to my own monsters, they just kept up with their taunting. “You’re not good enough. No one likes you. You mess everything up. Yadda, yadda, blah, blah, blah.”
But as good as I was at blocking them out, sometimes my monsters got the best of me and put points on the board. One night, my monsters got so loud that I took a lighter out of my pocket. I spun the little wheel on it and held down the red button to make the flame dance. Then, for no particular reason, I turned the lighter sideways and held the flame against the skin on my left hand. I held it there for a long time and it really hurt.
I pulled the lighter away when I couldn’t take it anymore. I could feel my blood pulsing under the damaged skin and then, again for no particular reason, I spun the little wheel, held down the red button, and pressed the flame against my skin again. All told, I did this a grand total of three times before throwing the lighter across my dorm room.
I looked back down at my skin and blinked at the greyish black streak along the side of my hand. It hurt. It hurt a lot actually, but it didn’t really bother me. For some reason, I just rinsed the spot off with cold water, wrapped a towel around it, and went to bed.
When I woke up, I was more annoyed than anything else. I unwrapped the towel and looked at the black spot again. I took a picture of it with my phone and sent it to my Uncle, who is a nurse practitioner and army veteran, with the caption: “Do you think I should have someone look at this?”
He replied almost immediately with a “Yes!” Followed by, “What happened?”
I didn’t answer him right away. I realized I would have to come up with an excuse for my injured hand as I walked out of my dorm and down to the Quick Care clinic. By the time I got to the clinic, I had decided on a story that was believable enough.
“So yeah.” I told the doctor. “I was at this party last night and the girl who hosted it got drunk and tried to make some something on the stove. She tried to take the pot off the stove, dropped it, and this searing goo splattered everywhere and some got stuck to my hand.”
He believed it. So did everyone else that I told this story to. And why not? Even if someone didn’t buy the story it’s not like they were going to say, “No, no hold on a minute. I bet you did that to yourself in your dorm room.”
You’ll have to trust me when I tell you that I honestly don’t know why I burned myself like that. I have a better understanding of what the monsters were now, but back then it was impossible for me to say, “Oh yeah! That’s why I did that.”
Real men don’t lose to monsters
It was particularly difficult to deal with these sorts of things with a conservative viewpoint. Conservative men aren’t supposed to be weak. They’re not supposed to let their monsters put points on the board. They’re supposed to be articulate, unflappable, and have great abs. That’s certainly how “real men” dealt with things in the movies.
Contrary to popular depression stories where people go off to college, get sad, and gain a ton of weight, I did the opposite. I figured that maybe I would feel more like a “real man” who could fight off the monsters if I could make other people think that I was doing really well. I worked out almost obsessively. I did this a lot during college. I’d spend two hours at a time at the gym. Once, I could barely walk back to my apartment when I was done. I figured that other people might think, “Oh that guy can’t be sad, he has abs!”
And I’ll tell you something else about this, it wasn’t good. Pain wasn’t weakness leaving my body, as the text on a “gym bro’s” shirt implied. Pain was pain. The reason I worked out so much, often at unhealthy levels, was because the same monster that tricked me into burning myself was tricking me again into hurting myself in a different way. That monster wouldn’t even allow me the grim satisfaction of feeling pleased with the results of so much gym going, it still told me I wasn’t good enough and no one liked me.
Because this particular monster kept beating me at different turns, I was an unintentional whirlwind of relationship destruction. The friendships that I had managed to make that year, I successfully destroyed. I’m not even in touch with anyone I knew my freshman year anymore. All of my close friends are people I met either before college, or after that first year. Even with some of the good things that came from my first year in college, I probably still have to chalk that year up as a win for the monsters. They played a solid offense and used all sorts of sneaky tricks.
One of their favorites was to parade around in my dreams and daydreams wearing the face of an ex-girlfriend. They went out of their way to remind me where every mirror was wherever I went so I could stop and obsessively make sure I hadn’t done something horribly embarrassing like missed a spot while I was shaving. They even tricked me into feeding other people’s monsters if I was in a position to one up another person.
A Real American Hero
And here’s where the tragic liberal brainwashing began. My monsters taunted me and held up various images of what I was supposed to be, I.E. what a “real man” looked like. Even though it was the monsters that tricked me into burning myself, they never stopped pointing out that a “real man” never would have done something like that. Real men get scars from fighting enemies and defending friends, not from hurting themselves with $1 Bic lighters.
Even through the fires of war, real men weren’t supposed to flinch. They were supposed to be like G.I. Joe staging terrific battles and winning because of the simple virtue that Americans don’t lose. Maybe that’s why I took so much comfort from the book Slaughterhouse 5. If you’re not familiar with Kurt Vonnegut, let me give you a quick rundown of his résumé:
Combat infantry veteran from WWII. Recipient of the Purple Heart. Did a lot of farm work as a boy. Good with tools. Raised six children who all turned out fine. Earned everything he owned through hard work. Never arrested or sued for anything. By all accounts, he was a “real man” and an American hero. Oh yeah, he also taught at the University of Iowa back in the day. Go Hawks!
What conservative man wouldn’t want this résumé? A country song I heard on the radio comes to mind here. No idea who sings it, but the chorus is:
“That’s something to be proud of. That’s a life you can hang your hat on. That’s a chin held high as tears fall down. A gut sucked in. A chest stuck out.”
Despite his ideal American credentials, Kurt Vonnegut is often dismissed by the right as a weirdo writer with a cult following of spineless, freedom-hating liberals. For no particular reason, Fox News ran a segment gently mocking him and belittling his work shortly after his death. Why? What was the point of doing that? Seriously, google “Fox News Kurt Vonnegut” and see for yourself.
Maybe they didn’t like the way he remembered the war. His most famous book wasn’t about the triumph of the American spirit. It didn’t make the US look like shining pillars of hope and manly heroes. It made soldiers on all sides look like people.
There’s a scene in Slaughterhouse 5 where the prisoners of war are ushered into a showering facility by their German captors. The book describes how weak and frail the men’s bodies look. They’ve been battered by the cold. Their starving. Their penises are small and shriveled because “reproduction was the last thing on anyone’s mind.”
That’s not the picture of war that conservatives like. But then again, I suppose “real men” prefer people who weren’t captured anyway.
In spite of the bleak setting, Slaughterhouse 5 doesn’t condemn the war. It isn’t depressing to read. It actually makes you feel good. Vonnegut demonstrates that it was horrible, but it happened. Bad things happen but usually there’s not much you can do about them, just try to be a good person. So it goes.
Slaughterhouse 5 made me feel better about life than any amount of praying, drinking, or working out ever did. It was easy to read, easy to remember, and written by a real person and a funny guy. And so I started digesting heretical books and my liberal brainwashing began. I read a lot of things by Kurt Vonnegut and even ended up writing my honors thesis on Slaughterhouse 5 my senior year of college.
It wasn’t just the propaganda from a leftist heretic like Kurt Vonnegut that made me feel better. It was music too. Hymns and contemporary Christian music could never comfort me the way secular songs with depth could. Kid Cudi could have a good time with his music in some songs and reassure his listener in others as he sang: I’ve got some issues that nobody can see and all of these emotions are pouring out of me.
He could pump you up for a work out and make you feel better by rapping: I’m just what you made, God. Fuck yes! I’m so odd.
Little by little, music (especially the music of Kid Cudi) and books by writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Margaret Atwood helped me laugh at the monsters.
A Little Extra Luck
One night my freshman year, in what was probably an ill-advised move, I stumbled into a tattoo shop just before they were set to close for the night. A few guys I knew were with me and I had declared that I was going to get a tattoo. I wanted a tattoo in part because a monster kept dangling a picture of an ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend that I had seen on Facebook in front of me. He had several tattoos and my monsters seemed to be of the opinion that I’d feel a lot better about that situation if I had a tattoo of my own.
After the monsters succeeded in making their nonsense sound reasonable, I decided on a four-leaf clover tattoo for three reasons:
- Leonardo DiCaprio’s character had a four leaf clover tattoo in the movie The Departed and he looked totally badass in that movie.
- My dad’s family is of Irish descent so I guess I had a better reason to give people than “it looked cool in a movie”.
- If I was being totally honest with myself, I could have used a little extra luck that year.
Honestly, it looked pretty stupid. Not the tattoo itself, that was just fine. It was well done. It looked stupid because of the size and where I decided to put it. It was just a lone clover high on my right shoulder. If you were looking at it from far away it just kinda looked like a big mole or a bruise.
Eventually, I started to be embarrassed by it. The monsters snickered about it in the corners of my mind. Then one day, I was walking down one of the main sidewalks in Iowa City and I noticed a bronze disc set into the pavement. It was one of many bronze plaques along that stretch of sidewalk and each of them had quotes from famous writers who were affiliated with the University. This one said:
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” –Kurt Vonnegut
At that point the only book by Kurt Vonnegut I’d read was Slaughterhouse 5, and that quote wasn’t from that book. But it was still sound advice from an American war hero and I asked myself who I was pretending to be. Usually, the monsters called the shots on pretending and that wasn’t working out so well.
Who was I then? Well, for starters whether I liked the tattoo or not, I was a guy with a tattoo on his shoulder. I could either be a guy with tattoo I didn’t like, or one that I did like. So I went back to the same shop and talked with another artist there. She came up with a design to expand the piece and we got to work.
I visited her at that shop every year of school after that. My sophomore year, she added a broken moon to circle the clover. My junior year, she put a compass on the outside of the shoulder and a triskelion to connect it with the back. My senior year, she capped off the top with a design resembling a fern leaf. There wasn’t really a rhyme or reason for the symbols, they just felt right.
So now there’s a patch-work piece scarring my shoulder and several burn marks scarring my hands and I’m ok with them. They are quite literally a part of me.
In my experience, old school conservatives don’t really like tattoos like mine. If they like tattoos at all, they usually go for ones like a screeching eagle in front of an American flag or a crusader knight holding an Ak-47. In my experience, they prefer tattoos that make bold statements so everyone knows where they stand on certain issues immediately. They don’t care for ones with really weird stories involving metaphorical monsters or ones that were inspired by the heretical writings of a leftist propagandist urging that people be honest with themselves and nicer to each other.
Lumpy With Scars
You’re never going to be immune from the monsters but if you let them convince you to pretend to be something, that’s what you will be until you decide to stop pretending. We all fight with our own monsters. Sometimes they put points on the board but there’s no reason to let them convince you that you’re losing just because you’re carrying around a scar or two from your battles with them.
In Breakfast of Champions Kurt Vonnegut writes about a character’s dog. He says,
“Dwayne’s only companion at night was a Labrador retriever named Sparky. Sparky could not wag his tail—because of an automobile accident many years ago, so he had no way of telling other dogs how friendly he was. He had to fight all the time. His ears were in tatters. He was lumpy with scars.”
I think a lot of people can identify with Sparky at times. We fight with each other when we don’t understand each other. We fight with ourselves when we don’t understand ourselves. And we end up lumpy with scars. Maybe we’d all be better off if we understood ourselves and each other better. But that’s just a loony idea from a leftist writer who happened to be an American war hero.
Even if you don’t like his stuff, artists like Kurt Vonnegut and several others certainly helped me out. They helped me to stop fighting and instead encouraged me to wag my tail as best I can. They encouraged me to try and understand the people who feel like they have to fight all the time. These liberal artists made me feel ok about being lumpy with scars.