The strong desire I had to be famous when I was very young might be attributable to a number of factors. My hyperactive imagination is certainly high on the list of potential reasons, not only because it facilitated my daydreams of fame, but also because I could think of lots of ways to harness that imagination to create works of art that would lead to me becoming famous (or so I believed back then). The rise of cable television in my early years, and MTV in particular, probably played a huge role as well, simply because “the rock-and-roll lifestyle” was more prevalent in American culture than ever before at that point. I also think that the bullying and abuse I received at the hands of so many people contributed a lot to my desire for fame; in my young mind, rising to the top of some form of media felt like the best way to prove wrong all those people who told me, ad nauseum, that I would never amount to anything.
My perspective has changed a lot since then, of course. I did not react well to the minuscule amount of “Internet fame” I got back in the late nineties, and as time has passed, I’ve come to appreciate that my mere survival to this point in my life is more than enough to show my haters up. The thought of becoming famous now doesn’t really appeal to me, although I still have the odd flight of fancy about that happening, since my brain can’t stop itself from processing every “what if” it comes up with. I’m certainly not planning on anything like that ever happening, but you never know about that kind of stuff, especially these days.
Since so many of my early fame dreams were centred on my musical pursuits, most of them involved me moving to Los Angeles at some point. Even though the Internet was already changing music when it first became popular in the mid-nineties, there was still a widespread cultural assumption that all famous American musicians lived in Los Angeles, or at least spent so much time around the city that they’d need a home there. That wasn’t something I felt any strong emotions about — I’m sure Los Angeles is a lovely city — but I can still remember the sprawling houses and huge in-ground swimming pools I built in my mind when I imagined my future home in la-la land. (I started doing this long before Cribs aired its first episode, so the displays of wealth in my house were never all that ostentatious. I just figured that all rich people in Los Angeles had huge, single-story homes with large pools. I blame that on the television shows I watched when I was younger.)
As I imagined these fantasy lives of mine, I knew that not every day would be paradise for me. The biggest thing I was aware of was that barring something highly unusual happening, I would outlive both of my parents. After they passed away, I would then be faced with a difficult decision: What to do with their house back in Toledo, the same one I came home to after I was born, where I spent all of my earliest years. In those dreams, I was too famous to even think of being able to live peaceably at that house again, but I figured that I could at least keep it maintained and visit it on the sly. (When my ego was feeling particularly neglected, I sometimes dreamed of turning the house into a museum devoted to my legacy. Did I mention that I was really messed up in the head back then?)
Regardless of how those dreams started, there was a pattern to all of them: I become a successful celebrity musician, my parents back home in Toledo get to see me move to Los Angeles and buy my own palatial estate, and then they finally pass away at some point when we’re all as comfortable as we can ever be with that eventuality. In this timeline, though, things didn’t turn out that way. My father died shortly after I finished graduate school, and even though I published my first book a couple of months before Mom passed away, she never got to see my first novel in print, or all of the interesting stories it’s generated. Neither of them are here now to see me at my first full-time teaching position, or in the apartment I now have here in Wisconsin (which is about twice as big as I really need, which makes me feel even dumber for imagining those sprawling Los Angeles estates for myself back in the day).
I don’t mind that I’m a writer/teacher in Wisconsin instead of a world-famous musician in California — given all that I’ve learned about fame since I saw my first music video on MTV, I honestly expect that I’m going to be a lot happier living this more modest life than the life of a celebrity — but the fact that I took such a different path to get here, and that my parents aren’t (physically) here to see what I’ve managed to accomplish, is more than a little disorienting. I never planned for this series of events, and even now that I’ve had a few weeks to settle down here in my new home, there’s still a sense of something being wrong about just how I wound up here. More than that, my parents’ physical absence as I start this new adventure still fills me with a profound sense of emptiness. Living in that house in Toledo after Mom’s passing was painful enough, but I’m not sure that being here in Wisconsin, without anyone to share my new life with, is much better.
One of the things that my extended stay in Toledo resulted in was a deeper connection to that city than I’d ever thought I could experience, especially after teaching there for so long and making so many connections with my students, connections that are still strong to this day thanks to social media. I’m making lots of wonderful new friends here in Wisconsin, but without my parents physically present any longer, I keep wishing that I could just invite those older friends, those strongest connections I still have to my life back in Toledo, here to my apartment in Wisconsin so they can see what I’ve made of myself, and I can share the fruits of my success with them. (Even though I’m only about seven hours of driving away from Toledo right now, my first experience of Chicago traffic this past August may be enough to last me a thousand lifetimes.)
I don’t know what the future holds for me; I may yet become some kind of celebrity, whether or not I want to. Chances are that I’ll keep adjusting to my new life in Wisconsin the longer I stay here, and I certainly hope that’s the case; I love my work, and I love the people I work with even more, so I want to do everything I can to pay back the help I’ve gotten from those people by being the best writer, and teacher, and person, that I can be. Maybe things will even work out for me so I don’t feel so lonely here any longer. Coming here the way I did, though, still has me feeling out of sorts, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to shake that feeling, except in my dreams.