I know, hard to imagine, but it was totally real. I have pictures.
During that time, one of the first books I remember reading was called “Arty the Smarty“. It was by Faith McNulty with pictures by Albert Aquino. For some reason, I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently. As I see it, this one book was probably the single most influential and pivotal piece of literature in my entire life.
Arty was a fish that did not do what all the other fish did. If they swam one way, he swam the other. If they cowered in fear in the corner, he swam around frantically. If they ran and avoided danger, he chased after it.
Arty was my first storybook hero.
He taught me to question authority, to eschew the norm, to examine fear rather than take anyone’s word that something was worth being afraid of. He taught me that the road to soul-death was lined with conformity, and he taught me that sometimes, being clever meant being a little mean, and there was nothing wrong with that because COOKIE.
And yet, it was so influential, this drive to be not just non-conformist but anti-conformist that I now remember moments where I would observe something I liked – the color red, for instance, or cherry-flavored things – and I would reject them based on the observation that other people liked them as well. I would instead choose orange things or green things, I would learn to love flavors that weren’t originally at the top of my favorites list, and I enjoyed a certain privilege that because my “favorites” were not everyone else’s favorites, I often got to actually partake of them when everyone else’s first choice was depleted.
It also influenced me in another slightly more subtle way in that I started to perceive that it was reasonable to expect that nearly all other people were the same, that non-conformists (anti-conformists) were so rare as to be very, very difficult to find. It wasn’t until fifth grade (and my fifth education institution) that I met someone I could imagine was non-conformist. Within a year, I started to formulate a theory on preference that environmental influence and availability (what bands were popular in what areas, for instance) was as much or more important than direct comparison against peers. (I did not at this time call it a “theory on preference”, I didn’t have that language, but I can recognize it now.)
The reason this has been on my mind recently is that I am starting to enjoy things now that I had previously ignored or rejected because I perceived them to be “popular” and therefore figurative paving stones to soul-death. I am wondering if those individual instantaneous choices peppered throughout my life were unduly influenced by Arty and his sinister ways, or if I was actually expressing a true preference. In the end, of course, it doesn’t matter because if I chose something based on that contrariness and I still didn’t like it, I would reject it, but how many things did I miss out on enjoying because of Arty?
“Never too late,” as they say, and I can still go back and enjoy things that may have represented soul-death before, but it’s an interesting thought about why I rejected it in the first place.
Arty is still my hero. He is the trickster, the jester, the explorer, the risk-taker. Given my lifetime of constant underlying anxiety and fear – and make no mistake, I was fearful my entire life – I might never have had the thankfully much louder counter-voice that dared me to steal the bait off the hook instead of running. This may be why I could be in denial of my fearful weird for so many years, because I had Arty to back me up.
Strange thoughts, that such a small little thing, such a seemingly inconsequential child’s book, could be the foundation of an entire lifetime with such clarity.