Calliope Twisp dwelt in the space between the real and ideal, striving always to bring perfection into manifestation. Being a human entailed challenge: good enough wasn’t enough when it was always possible to see how it could be better.
When she dove into a new painting, inspiration carried the seed of perfection, whether crystallized in a feeling or flash of color. Slowly, as the seed descended from crown to solar plexus, and the vision spread through her heart out her arm into her hand and fingers and the brush laden with paint, reality struck: as vision becomes made manifest, it leaves perfection behind.
This was where she lived.
Her cats, being cats, lived as models of perfection, always.
Mr. Whiskers, the rodent with pretentions of becoming A Most Important Person, scurried out of the ideal more often than not.
The fish, being fish, swam blissfully and wholly in the real.
But Calliope lived in the space between ideal and real, and in that space, she met Baako Jang for his coaching sessions.
“I can’t seem to get unstuck?” Baako confessed.
She dealt a simple spread. In the center, the position of the querent: the Magician, reversed. “Gimmicks and tricks substituting for art… The borrowed robes of an imposter.”
“Tell me about your career,” she inquired.
She knew he was the headline act every weekend at a hip comedy club in the Art District.
“I don’t deserve the attention I get,” he said. “I’m not funny. I mean, seriously, I am not even funny.”
Calliope giggled, in spite of herself.
“What’s funny about a dweeb in big gold glasses, hip clothes, and a lisp?”
She laughed out loud.
“I mean, seriously. On a scale of one to ten, who’s funnier? A box of Kleenex or me? Or me with a box of Kleenex, because, actually, most days, I do carry a box of Kleenex with me, well, OK, not an actual box but the equivalent tissues–a box’s worth of tissues–can you say ‘box’s worth’ or should it be ‘box’ worth?’ Where do you put the–ding”—and he drew an apostrophe in the air with his index finger–“because not only am I a dweeb in gold glasses somehow wearing really hip clothes and talking with a lisp, but–“and he sniffled loudly–“allergies. Dweeb. Glasses–gold, even. Hip, not so. Lisp. Allergies. See?”
She was rolling on the floor.
“All right,” she said, when she finally caught her breath. “You are funny. It’s not an accident. You’re not an imposter. It’s imposter syndrome. You’re the real deal, but you feel like a fake.”
“How did you know?” he asked. “I don’t look real, do I? Do I look one-hundred-percent synthetic? Made out of one-hundred-percent real synthetic materials?”
At any rate, he couldn’t write, lately. When he sat to write new comedy routines, he wrote strange, twisted confessionals, instead. They weren’t funny, at least, so he said. And even if they were, they were funny in a Lenny-Bruce kind of way, and not a way that he, Baako Jang, husband of Anaya–who was beautiful, hip, cool, and the very real deal–and father of Billie–who was everything sweet, funny, and goofy that a kid should be–would want to deliver. He didn’t want to write comedy he couldn’t share with his kid.
“See what I mean?” he said. “A real comedian wouldn’t care.”
Calliope pointed to the King of Pentacles, the card in the position of Higher Self in Baako’s spread. “You’re a family man,” she said. “It makes sense.”
That was it! The crux of his writer’s block unfolded for her: The tension between his role as a father and his role as a “hip, dweeb comedian” placed him in the in-between and his mind froze. Coupled with his imposter syndrome, the result was creative paralysis.
She gave him two pieces of homework:
- Watch for times when he made someone else genuinely laugh–a deep belly laugh, a nose-snort, a hiccupping giggle fit, or milk-out-the nose, uncontrollable laughter.
- See how being funny helps him be a better dad or better husband.
He had plenty of time for observation during the next week.
Anaya was home most days, working on her art. He could watch her paint all day. While she worked, she became Ms. Zen, as he called her. He liked to sit on a big pillow in the corner of the room, smelling the linseed oil and rich creamy scent of her paints, while she moved her arm in big arcs as she spread the paint. He grew to love the scratch of paint on canvas.
When she stopped, though, she’d scrunch up her nose and examine the painting.
“Oh. That line is not right! It’s not supposed to be a line; it’s supposed to be diffused.”
“It looks blended, like blendy-blended, to me,” he’d reassure her.
“No, this, see? It draws your eye off the canvas.”
“Off the canvas and onto the artist,” he said. “Just where I want my wandering eyes to be!”
She chuckled. “You see what I mean, though?”
“I’ll tell you what it looks like to me,” he said. “Sure, I see that line, but it’s nice and blended and the arc draws my eye off but then my gaze pops right back in that house, Mr. Mars’ house, right? There behind those elms. And he’s out in the garden, breathing in the scent of his wife’s apple pie, coming right out of the oven, and those clouds are rolling down, saying, ‘Dang, we want some pie, too,’ and so pretty soon, the trees are knocking at the door, and the clouds are banging in, and everybody–I mean the whole town, and all the plants, and the frogs, and the townsfolk–like everybody–is coming in for a piece of that pie!”
By now, Anaya was holding her sides as she laughed and laughed. “My painting makes you think all that?”
“All that and more. What the heck are the plants doing coming in for a piece of apple pie? Are they dang cannibals, or something?”
Anaya swatted him, and he headed out to find Billie, sitting at the dining table, with her homework.
“How’s the arithmetic life?” he asked her. “Seven ate nine, yet?”
“Daddy! Numbers don’t eat each other.”
“Dang. I really do have cannibals on the mind tonight.”
She didn’t think it was funny.
“Am I weird, Daddy?” she asked.
“Who says so?”
“Kids,” she replied.
She finished her homework while Baako tried to think of a decent reply.
“Let’s go sit-have-a-talk,” he said.
“What’s weird?” he asked. “Do you think I’m weird?”
“Kinda.” She smiled at him. “But in a cool way.”
“Did the kids who called you weird mean it in a cool way?”
“Jacob did. But not Maura.”
“Do you think Maura is weird?”
“No. She’s normal.”
“Is she how you want to be?”
“No. She’s boring.”
“How do you want to be?”
“Like you! Funny!”
“Sometimes, ‘weird’ is another word for funny.” He recalled a story about when, as a boy, he’d decided to be unweird–normal. In fifth grade, for two weeks, he launched The Campaign of Normal, wearing white socks, blue pants, a white t-shirt, and normal sneakers–like all the normal kids. Except his glasses were gold-rimmed, even back then. So he’d painted them black. The paint flecked off, because, you know, paint doesn’t really stick well to metal, so each night, he’d paint them before he went to sleep so they’d be ready in the morning. One night, he was so tired that he went to sleep without painting them. The next morning, he painted them real quick, before he slipped them on to run off to school. When he took his glasses off for gym, some of the boys started hooting. They made loops with their fingers and held them over their eyes. They pointed at him, laughing. They laughed so hard that during basketball, nobody could guard him, and he made five baskets. His team won the game!
“Nice going, Hoop Eyes!” The boys on his team said. They were still laughing, but something had changed. They liked him. He’d won the game for them.
When he was getting ready to go back to class, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and saw what they’d been laughing at. The wet paint on his glasses had left black rings around his eyes. Hoop Eyes, indeed!
“And so did you stop being weird?” Billie said, laughing at his story.
“Not hardly,” Baako answered. “I think that was when I decided to stop trying not to be.”
Not long after, Baako ran into Calliope during an evening walk.
“Hey, coach,” he said. “My homework’s going great.”
“Funny Family Guy?” she asked.
“Funny Family Guy,” he said. “I live for the laughter of Anaya and Billie.”
“And I bet they live for your jokes!” She replied. “So what’s next? How’s the writing?”
He went home to try. The blank screen was as daunting as ever.
But then, he just started typing. He remembered Anaya’s chuckle. He heard Billie’s guffaw. He wrote, without even thinking about what he was writing, just letting the words flow.
When he got stuck, he remembered the sound of their laughter again.
“I can do this,” he told himself. “I’m Funny Family Guy.”
And before he knew it, he’d filled the screen with words.
He went back over them, reading them to himself. He couldn’t help but laugh out loud. These were some good lines! OK. It wasn’t perfect. Far from ideal. But, dang! It was funny! Even with mistakes, his jokes were funny. Weird and funny. Weird, funny, family guy.
“I think I realized something,” he said, the next time he ran into Calliope. “It doesn’t have to be perfect to be good.”
“What’s that?” she asked. “How so, and why for?”
“It’s like my wife’s paintings. They’re not perfect, but dang, they’re beautiful. Like her. So beautiful. And it’s the little imperfections–like a line that wanders off, or like her little crook in her nose–that make it reach right into you. That call to you.”
“Oh, you’ve given me something to think about!” Calliope said, strolling off.
Baako sat at the bench for a while as the city noises rumbled around him. He didn’t feel like a Magician reversed anymore. At that moment, sitting in his weird funny self, he felt quite righted.
Credit: The quoted interpretation of the Magician, reversed, comes from Llewellyn Worldwide, the Llewellyn Deck.