I can hit my head against solid surfaces and objects really, really hard.
That might be perceived as a flippant statement, maybe a little in-joke you don’t get, or a philosophical metaphor for the struggle of the human brain to fathom the weight of existence. It is neither. I’m simply telling you: I can bash my forehead into things, and it doesn’t really hurt.
I first noticed this ability in primary school, where such God-given talents are usually discovered. This might come as a shock to you but, in primary school, I attempted to make up for my inadequacies and insecurities about girls by brazenly attempting to attract attention to myself. My early, crude attempts involved armpit noises, blotches of ketchup smeared dribbled down my chin to simulate blood and, until puberty hit, impersonations of Mickey Mouse’s voice. None of these seemed to go over well.
Then, one day, when I was trying to make Suzie Johnson laugh on a bus ride home from school, I took my spelling book and bashed it against my face. Suzie had been telling me she was having trouble with spelling, how she just couldn’t get the letters in right order, how she just couldn’t make the words fit right in her head, no matter how hard she studied. I had a word-a-day calendar at home, and I’d recently learned osmosis. I told her she should just try to put the book to her head, or maybe sleep on top of it, and perhaps it would all just seep in. “Check it out,” I said. And then…WHAP!
The reaction was immediate. The eyes of the entire bus locked on me. Joy, the bus driver who had known me since kindergarten, mistakenly thought I’d hit Suzie with the book and made me do the walk of shame to the front of the bus, sitting directly behind her, like all the troublemakers. I told her I didn’t hit Suzie; it was my own head I’d hit. To prove it, I smacked myself with it again. “David!” she exclaimed. “Why on earth are you doing that?” Everyone on the bus was still staring at me. I had their rapt attention. It was exhilarating. Their looks answered Joy’s question, easily.
After that, I honed my talent into an art form. During lunch, I’d gather friends around and let them take shots at me with the cafeteria trays. It became rote to walk into doors face-first and then fall back dramatically, pretending I was in agony before breaking a smile to let them know that, no, I was fine. At parties, I would ask a girl to dance, and if she said no, I would ram my face into the wall. Sure, they were horrified at first, but after a while, they were simply repulsed. It never failed to get a laugh from my friends, and it got everyone talking about me, and, really, that’s all I wanted.
Eventually I even trained myself to take repeated shots, usually against some sort of table, a woodpecker-type motion: WHUP-WHUP-WHUP-WHUP-WHUPWHUPWHUP! My all-time high was 16 in a row. Even I started to get dizzy at about 14, though that was more because of the quick downward thrusts than anything else.
The years passed, but this skill never waned. As I got older, alcohol entered the equation, upping the ante. Oftentimes, toward the end of the night, everyone would gather around, making sure their glasses were off the table, and then watch Daring David’s display. Alcohol made me somewhat cocky, though, and a couple of times I would come up with rather large cuts in my forehead. It still never hurt, though.
It even comes in handy at work. When I’m having a particularly bad day, or just had another conversation with on of the resident idiots, I can quietly retreat to my office, close the door and use my head to perform a slow, rhythmic beat on the desk.
We all have a little talent like this. One friend can say words backwards as easily as he can forwards. (Palindromes make his nose bleed.) Another can rattle off the names of every ’80s rock band member, with instruments. One can bend his fingers the wrong direction so that they touch his wrist. I’m sure you have one too. Mine just happens to be a resilient forehead. My talent’s advantage is that it makes a loud noise, and sometimes leaves a rather frightening welt. Maybe it all started at the age of three, when I fell and busted my head against a stair, receiving a permanent scar on my forehead, but I feel like kind of a tough guy; sure, I can’t lift a pair of dumbbells without busting a blood vessel, but I can take as many head shots with a flat object that you can muster. There should be some sort of Strongman competition for this. Or maybe I should go on Britain’s Got Talent… or Jackass.
Of course, um, I’m in my late 30s now, which means I rarely perform anymore — or at least I try to limit my performances to the right moments. I usually don’t call people over anymore. I’ve found more subtle, quiet ways to make sure everyone around pays attention to me now. But when the right moment comes, almost always at a bar, I’ll pick my spot and just lay one down. The trick now relies more on the element of the unexpected; maybe we’ll be discussing politics or something, and someone will make a point I hadn’t thought of and have no instant response or comeback to. The debate has been lost. What better time? WHAP! WHAP! WHAP-WHAP-WHAP! After that, people tend to forget whatever it is we were talking about. I know I do.
Look! I can even do it against a keyboard! Fgo iftp uit eca etrffvm,frf4vrfvk gjuhhuyyhuddyt dytduy7y8t7t6t67.
All right. I’m done here. I think something just haemorrhaged.
It is staggering to see how much artistic talent there is out there, everywhere, really. Wherever you look, someone is making something, and they’re quite good at it.
A friend of mine works in the financial industry. He spends his days dealing with hedge funds and separately managed accounts. When he leaves the office, he gets together with a colleague and practices with his band, in which they play the keyboards and start the drum machine and sing and dance in front of mostly empty bars. The next day, he slogs back into work and does it all again.
Another guy I know temps. He hops from job to job, a nobody, the guy floating around the office that no one knows. At night, he hits the stand-up comedy circuit, staving off hecklers, constantly trying out new material. He is constantly pushing for that big break, which has to happen, because he’s working so hard. And he is pretty funny.
And don’t get me started on the Web. At the risk of sounding grumpy, everybody’s got a damned blog. It’s their place where they can be who they really are, unvarnished, expressing themselves truthfully and with conviction. Odds are, someone you know has an Internet presence, a place where they can produce and enliven themselves, and you have no idea. There’s some great stuff out there on the Web. You should check them all out.
The most exhilarating part of any creative endeavour is that, essentially, it’s all magic. Whether you’re a tortured artist driven mad by your own genius or just some loser stringing together bad similes about your ex-girlfriend set to awkward acoustical fumblings in an empty pub, you are introducing something new into the world. Before you put pen to paper, or paint to canvas, or fingers to guitar, there was nothing there. You created it. There was emptiness, and you filled it, generating a real tangible thing out of thin air, pulling the rabbit out of your hat. It’s tremendously exciting. And — and here’s where it gets you — addictive. Ruthlessly so.
Because after a while, even if you’re good, you realise it doesn’t pay shit, and it’s a lot of work, and it’s hard and frustrating and totally thankless. You realise that there are a million other kids out there doing the same thing you are, and some of them are better, a lot of them are. And, worst, you realise that you’re growing older, and all the stuff you imagined for yourself, a family, a nice home, Sunday League football with the kids, all that’s creeping up on you. For a while you compromise, and you balance doing what you’re passionate about with what you have to do to survive and lay the groundwork for future happiness. But that line keeps inching up on you, and you find that you’re expressing yourself less and less, that after a full 8-hour workday, which you have to go through to pay your rent and live your life, get out from under your debt, whatever… you’re just too tired to create, which, after all, at its core, is just more work. Next thing you know, you haven’t written, or painted, or performed, in months. The momentum stops, and you’re just another person working in an office, hoping to beat the traffic home. And before you know it, you’re the guy telling the upstart new kid at work, the one so full of promise and hope and optimism, how you used to write, or paint, or perform, all the time, really, I was quite good, I just didn’t catch my break, you know? Because eventually you do have to stop. As Chris Rock said, no one wants to be the oldest guy in the bar.
This isn’t meant to be depressing. It happens. How could it not? We only have so much time.
Ask your parents. No matter what they do in their lives, whether they’re an electrician or a nurse or a tax collector, I can guarantee you that when they were young, they had some sort of artistic endeavour. Maybe they wrote poems in their diary, maybe they just tore apart cars and put them back together. Do they do it anymore? Is it still a part of their life? Watch their face when they tell you how they used to paint. Watch it light up, then crest into a faint sadness. “That was a long time ago,” they’ll say.
A smart person said once that the worst thing you can say to someone under the age of 30 in London is, “You will never be famous. Let it go.” It’s a cold-blooded, cynical, joyless thing to say, even more so because it’s heartbreakingly true. And when you consider that 99 percent of the time, you’d be absolutely right, well, it makes you want to hide in your room and not try to create anything.
But yet, but yet, you do, we do, we all do. It doesn’t have to end in fame, or money, or sex (though, to be fair, it’s always nice when something ends in sex). Nobody starts doing something because they think it will ultimately provide them worldly pleasures; they do it because they love it, because they must do it.
One friend spends her day trying to help people with mental health problems, many of whom show no appreciation whatsoever for her efforts. It’s a tough and often emotionally-draining job, but in her spare time she leaves that behind and designs handbags. “It’s just my little thing that I do for me,” she says.
Is she wrong? The others above, the ones sneaking in gigs after the stock exchange closes, the ones telling jokes, the ones writing poetry, are they wrong? Are they fooling themselves? Are they wasting their time? Should they stop?
No, no, no, never, never. They are creating magic, every one of them, and that’s something a nice house and matching linens can never replace. I don’t know what’s going to happen to any of them, or to me, but I love them, I love that they still care, I love that it matters. I hope they never, ever stop. I know I don’t plan to. We all have to keep going, while we can.