Manson, Culkin, and Creative Blocks: How my inner child stopped playing and started preparing

Back when I was a boy I had my very own drum set in my basement. It was loud. BOOM. BOP. BOOM-BOOM. BOP. BOOM. BOP. BOOM-BOOM BOP. DADA-DADA-DADA-DADA-CHAAAA. Even though I was downstairs and they were upstairs, it bugged the hell out of my family.

Not my mom, never my mom. She was and is my biggest fan. I could rip the drums apart with a circular saw and she’d still hear the musical merit. I love her. But it had to have bothered- if only periodically- the rest of the family.

In fact, I remember coming up after one particularly loud, industrial and maniacal jam session, meeting my sister at the landing. She needed to vent. She said that what I was playing was either redundant or loud or both.

My goal isn’t to resuscitate an old resentment, but to re-visit what happened afterward. After that, I began to feel apologetic every time I went downstairs to play, and sheepish every time I came back up. To avoid annoying my family (or so I perceived) I played gentler, quieter and less frequently. But what became the best remedy was to simply play when nobody was home.

With the whole house empty, I could really unload. I didn’t have to worry about playing too loud. I didn’t have to worry about playing too bad. I made a lot of mistakes- my best mistakes.

If there’s one thing that doesn’t jive with music, it’s being self-conscious and afraid of error. Hell, being afraid of making mistakes isn’t conducive to anything, but especially not music.

It was going well until I developed a brand new fear. While I was down there banging away, I couldn’t hear anything. I couldn’t hear the phone ringing, I couldn’t hear the door bell, I couldn’t even hear lightning strike. I certainly couldn’t hear if an intruder decided to break into our home and make his way down to murder me.

An irrational fear, I know. But where did it come from? I have some theories. First of all, the bogey man. We were raised to always lock the doors, whether we were home or not. Even if it wasn’t explicitly spelled out as to why, my imagination would start coming up with its own ghastly explanations. And even though we lived in a rich suburban home, we were still vulnerable. In fact, we were more vulnerable because we were in a rich suburban home- with broad living room windows and ample distance between our house and our neighbor’s. Add to that Macauley Culkin and Charles Manson, and we’ve got a recipe for nightmare.

Erhh. I need to explain… The movie Home Alone was a goliath, early 90s blockbuster hit. Everybody saw it, or at least every boy my age did. Here’s a refresher, for those not familiar with the plot: a young, impish yet innocent white suburban boy is accidently left behind in his white suburban home while his family goes away for Christmas. They don’t realize his absence for quite some time (it’s a large family and he’s lost in the shuffle, which is the emotional subplot of the whole film) and so he’s left “home alone” all Christmas. Now comes the main plot- two burglars are determined to break into this house and steal the family jewels, sort of speak. They count on it being empty… but it it’s not. Little Kevin (Macauley Culkin) is there and is required to defend his home against these two violent criminals.

The combat between our young protagonist and his bumbling foes is pure vaudeville. Hijinks and slapstick, 3 Stooges meets the cat burglar. The violence of the film is rendered harmless, yet it’s still violent. The intruders are burnt, electrocuted, bludgeoned, tarred and feathered, and pierced through the feet with metal spikes- all by the clever ingenuity of Kevin. Quite frankly, it’s fucked up, now that you think about it. But as a kid, it’s fun.

And still. It’s real. It fuels the imagination of a young boy who, trapped and armed with only his own resources, imagines how he’d defend himself and his family’s home. In short, I always had a plan on how to defend against intruders. Whether it was using my bebe gun, kitchen knives, or balancing a can of paint precariously above a doorway… I was ready. While drumming home alone, I kept it simple: I left a hammer on a TV tray right next to my drumset. Just in case.

But I was still terrified because I was so vulnerable. I couldn’t hear a thing outside of my own drumming. If there was an intruder he would be able to get all the way down the stairs and even across the room before I saw him. To protect myself against such a situation, I was hyper-vigilant. While I played.

If I thought I heard the house stir, I stopped playing. If I thought I heard a door open upstairs, I stopped playing. Just to make sure, I stopped playing. Like a deer frozen in a clearing, listening for the predator’s footsteps, I breathed and staid still and, sadly, stopped playing. I lost the rhythm, the pace, the fun, the flow. Even worse than playing self-consciously, I played disjointedly, afraid of being home alone.

These days, it’s not that bad. For one, I’m an adult. And two, the city is safer than the suburbs. Or at least it feels that way. You don’t have big windows that can be broken into and neighbors aren’t out of range of a desperate cry. You have one door in your apartment through which things go in or out, and that door has several locks and a chain. It feels safer.

But now I have neighbors. Lots of them. And when I play the new metal drum instrument I just bought, I’m nervous that I’m bothering them, that I’m bad, that I’m going to be interrupted by one of them making a noise complaint. It makes me want to rent a space to practice, because playing quietly and carefully isn’t an option.

Oh, I almost forgot. Charles Manson. It’s my theory that the reason Home Alone was such a hit was that, thirty years prior, Manson (or his followers) broke into an idyllic home and slaughtered those inside. As effectively as Vietnam, this event shattered the belief in a secure and sure American Home. The trauma of this event was pushed to America’s subconscious during the 80s, emerging only again in the perverted, sublimated form of a kid’s movie starring a seemingly magical boy who overcomes the bogey man once and for all. BOOM. BOP. BOOM-BOOM BOP. DADA-DADA-DADA-DADA-CHAAAA.

Happy ending: there’s a church down the street from my new apartment that houses a public drum circle every Friday. Sweet!

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