March 4th, 2011 / 4:16 pm
Behind the Scenes

How I Got Here

Becoming is weird. I have theories: how I got here, what lead me, what pushed me out of one interest and into the next. I don’t get too high on rethinking and visiting my quick past, which, if I had to guess, is a big reason why I’m happy most of the time. I’m not that interested in my past, not as reportage, not as history. But consider this an essay in its primordial meaning: an attempt at a history. That black space with the electricity below it right above, that’s it.

When I was little I frequently made stuff. Stories, goofs. I was really into drawing, and applied to one of those mail-order Drawing Schools (to prove my might I had to draw a weird turtle boy’s face and include some mom money). My mom and dad, ever the best ever, obliged and encouraged me. Always. Throughout this entire post, remember that thread of encouragement. I’ve never lacked it from those close to me. If I’m not lucky I’m not anything else. Art class in school fed me, kept me wanting. I remember getting into a shoving match in second grade — was the kid’s name Kurt? — over who had drawn the better Star Wars TIE fighter. I fake hyperventilated when the teacher came to break it up, feigning something bodily urgent, and was made to stand against a wall and breathe slow. Kurt got punished, maybe spanked. I don’t know. It was Texas.

Eventually my interest in drawing waned or just became more ambient. This was around middle school. One of the teachers was the dad of a nice girl in some of my classes, and he got cancer. He died, eventually. Part of me wants to say kids shaved their heads in solidarity, before he died, but I may be filling that in, a piece from some movie. Regardless, my little universe lucked out again and I got into a GT class — Gifted & Talented; bad name, good class — taught by Kim Cheek. We did logic puzzles and built alien cultures, making mock space rock Rosetta Stones. We performed, aped, laughed. I don’t remember any specific tests or graded papers in GT. It seemed like our grade was based on intensity of enthusiasm. This eventually rolled into Destination Imagination. DI consisted of challenges: build a set that has a certain trick function, do a performance in parameters, build something on the fly and use it. I remember: our team made a giant book out of PVC, huge paper, and paint. Each pair of pages was a new set to perform in front of. We made another book on a pillar, encased in glass, that was controlled exclusively by fishing wire. It magically lifted and shook. Pages turned. We travelled through time. I acted in our play. Dry ice was a thrill. We qualified to go to the state competition and performed there. My friend Matt and I — Matt was a funny kid, crazy red hair — went behind the hosting school and down to this little river and drank from it. Matt got really sick. That creek, not at all a river, actually, was one of the most beautiful things I remember.

And my older brother. I looked up to him so much; there’s a warped admiration that is reserved for younger siblings. He went through a few phases: skater to punk to anarchist to raver. I feel like the last transition happens a lot. I remember doing a certain prescription drug that was very popular for the ADHD generation, altered slightly in its form of delivery, waiting until midnight to snort, wow I’m thirteen and wow this is weird, the subsequent altered state, beating my brother in Super Smash Brothers, and beating him, and beating him. Pretty funny, and harmless in hindsight. He still is brilliant with computers, coding. He showed me my first pornographic picture by drawing up a screen in DOS littered with green. He asked me to pick a number, one through thirteen. I forget which number I picked, but I remember the girl. She was nude except for a cowboy hat, boots, and a thin leather belt that held up holstered guns. And: redhead. (This is a pattern.)

My brother’s influence was deep. I totally aped his musical taste, and followed it as it moved from 311 to Sublime to Nirvana to NOFX to Dr. Dre. I eventually found his copy of this ATB electronica mix that you could by from Walmart or Sam Goody (I remember: Sam Goody had a HOUSE section). I skateboarded, and was okay at it. I could never kickflip, but enjoyed ollieing immensely. A memorable near fight: skate park. I’d wipe out and my skateboard kept skidding underneath a BMX kid’s bike. It didn’t hurt the bike; if anything, the skateboard got chewed. He yelled something. I kept quiet and nodded. It happened again. He got off his bike, came over to me, kept about a foot away, and proudly told me he was Irish. If I had been in my Goodfellas phase — which is ridiculously intense; I knew the mechanics of the Mafia, Italian America, casino histories and their long odds — I probably would’ve spit in his face. And that would’ve been okay. I probably would’ve bartered a black eye for my dad emerging from his truck and beating the kid. I regret, I regret.

I read, from the earliest memory. Fantasy novels were the first big post-Berenstain slew. I read the Redwall series (berserker badgers!), the Eye of the World series, the Shannara series, Harry Potter. I also read a shitload of Hardy Boys, for the points. Accelerated Reading was the Texas school system’s reading program. Hardy Boys were easy to burn through, and their computer tests were concrete and quick, and they were worth five points a pop. I remember feeling really competitive toward Hilary, who seemed to constantly be reading these yellow-dotted and mega-thick books about horses. She wore horse paraphernalia, too. I wanted points; I wanted more class pizza parties. Maybe this competition, more than anything, lead to me picking up the challenging books. Dracula and Frankenstein at first. Then A Confederacy of Dunces. That was the book. I remember feeling totally mystified and entertained and stretched and awake. Side note: before this, when I was 8 or 9 or 10ish, I started writing a fantasy novel called The Stronghold. It was about a boy wizard. His parents are killed by an evil wizard. He has a scar on his face and goes to a wizardry school. No shit. Harry fucking Potter. I was so pissed. I felt that the collective consciousness was stealing from me. I also remember designing a Gundam Wing card game. Then it appeared. A Pokemon Monopoly, which quickly appeared. I even called and pitched that one to the Hasbro corporate line’s patient answering machine. Anyway: throughout all this, I had access. The school libraries were good and full. I had time to read at home, and at school. I was encouraged. I acquired.

For about three years, my mom and I would drive from Abilene to Dallas and back. A six hour round trip, and we did it up to 5 days a week, so I could do print modeling jobs and audition for toy commercials. We had a box TV with a VHS player wedged in front of the shifter, and we’d watch two to four movies per trip. Any movie was on the menu (Terminator 2: Judgement Day, or T2 as it was fondly referred to in my house, was my favorite movie when I was 5). Profanity was not an issue and was a staple of the Baumann house; my dad’s verbal prowess is fucking seething. It still astounds me. He never cursed at us; he always described some customer, some hick, some mechanical fuck up. He’s a mechanic. He’s also ex-racecar driver who quit because he took a top-fuel motorcycle down on himself to avoid plowing through a a crowd. The speed machine ate the inside of his left leg, which is now brown, mangled, and stiff. He’s the hardest working person I know. Anyway, my mom and I would watch these movies. I loved film. I still loved writing, too; by now I was deep into the next fantasy novel project, this one including multiple maps, codexes, character breakdowns, and a thousand year history.

Drawing waned, but collecting didn’t. Throughout my short life I’ve collected coins, rocks, arrowheads, dragon sculptures, medieval figurines wielding swords, actual swords, knives, Gundam series models, car models, comics, Spawn comics & toys & movies & ephemera & posters, Choose Your Own Adventure books, fedoras, DVDs, Pokemon cards, Magic The Gathering cards… I look back at the collection of collections and I feel a little gross, but also spiritually rich. Amassed an empire of fantasy. Mounds of person.

Online communities — the second portal unlocked via my brother’s computer — became the next ultimate thing. Unlike my voracious reading, gathering, competing, or performing, I was now communing in a more gaping way. I was big into Tactics Arena Online for awhile, and played and strategized and purchased new pieces when they started selling shit. And behold: the forums were open. The night before I started writing this essay, I drew up all the profiles attached to my old favorite avatar and name. This was exhausting. I mined and mined. Over 2000 posts in the TAO forums. At the end there, I remember: I promoted a webcomic called Walrus and Plato with Feet. This was a webcomic that I regularly made and posted online, and was trying to promote. Before that I made a series called The Wizard of Dill. I would draw the comics then scan them in this behemoth scanner and then upload them, one every other day. Because of the Internet Wayback Machine, I’ve been able to see the old based WAPWF site. And all those forums are functional archives. I relooked at myself profiling and blasting out links to the comic on all sorts of compendiums, linked up the wazoo, promoting heavily. Hustling. If I only had the trunk of a Cutlass.

Eventually I moved on from comics and just went WTF, playing the troll (albeit in troll-only forums; as the logic went). I forgot about this. The troll was a character, of course, stemming from my half-arbitrarily-picked avatar name. He affected an accent, aped a historical gangster. I felt I had gleaned enough from the movies and books and that one massively scandalous TV show. Gleaned enough to play this character online. Trolling is so weird. Such teen posturing, but in 2D. Writing violence. Both in a trolling mode and in a more creative way, and spread throughout other forums, are attempts at fiction. Subject matter I took as adult, serious. Some of the language is still interesting, salvageable even.

To my mind, there are the books and cultural nodes alongside the living that serve as monuments. The map is what this is all about, and the monuments are easy enough to see on the map — if they are truly monumental. Some of my monuments: A Confederacy of Dunces, Cat’s Cradle, The Gunslinger, The Stranger, Eeee Eee Eeeee, then Tao Lin’s blog, then Blake Butler’s blog, Chronic 2001, my dad’s cars, trying to act and model professionally in NYC when I was 10, the Oakwood apartment complex in Burbank, clipped fist fights, first kisses, sneaking and drinking and organizing. I remember: when I was fifteen, I tried to get forty five kids to play Capture the Flag in an Ikea. We had played successfully a handful of times, a lot of us, and in big spaces. Guerilla Capture the Flag is what I called it. I designed banners and posters online, set up a site, a forum. Got emails from kids taking the idea and playing in France, Canada. Another weird thrill. Although: I look back at this map of monuments, and if I’m invested in a darker part of me, all I see: more toys. More stones in a box. And if I’m feeling neutral: maybe it is just that. That’s okay.

I also was obsessed with Alternate Reality Gaming, which has since been co-opted into basic 21st century marketing. I wanted to play them, crack the codes, research DNS shit, go to places and pick up packages, chart locations. I eventually started one. I have the bare outlines of myth saved on this harddrive, somewhere. I peeked at a few of the old documents recently. I got people following. Then more collectors noticed — it helped having a close friend embedded in the search to help drive the mystery along. Ultimately, my fatal flaw was that I relied on codes that were too hard to crack. And I didn’t have an endgame in mind. Call it the Lost problem. But that sort of play and fiction still seems like a viable method for writers to study. People were making weird shit, shallow myths, art realms online and in your neighborhood, and it was all fictive, all dreamed, but mutually. It strung people along & out.

Also: under various lost names, I wrote a lot of semi-fan fiction. Not straight FF in that we didn’t use the exact characters in the books — the Wheel of Time universe was the big one — but created our own stuff within the system of the work. I made online friends. Collaborated on stories. Past the Wheel of Time forums, I tried to create a community that would write in & about the Dark Tower universe. I managed to group together four interested and very kind people, but then it went dead.

I see my past as a collection of attempts, games, admirations, and imitations. A path molded by both my brain — seemingly programmed to consume a lot of culture — and familial encouragement. And, of course, I am molded by the prime guides: access and chance. If I hadn’t picked up The Stranger in that airport bookstore, I wouldn’t have googled Existentialism (funny), wouldn’t have found Tao Lin’s blog through his essay about the Virginia Tech shootings, wouldn’t have found Blake Butler’s blog, in which he talked about an even wider range of stuff, and then I wouldn’t eventually be here. Doing what I’ve been doing since I was a kid, but maybe in a more invested way: hanging around, looking for friends and conversation, making stories, collecting, giving out.

So I’m here.

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  1. Vicki

      And so glad you are. Creating is not only fuel but fire. So happy you have the time and ability.

  2. Amy McDaniel

      double weird timing: i woke up this morning from a dream of a beautiful redhead. like you i wasn’t interacting with her, just looking. if i’d thought she’d reappear i would’ve pressed snooze again.

      i love “I see the past as a collection of attempts, games, admirations and apings.” though i guess you are also saying, the future/present is a collection of those things determined. i appreciate the words about family encouragement, too. i relate to that.

      it’s interesting the way you write your past as a kind of expanding and shifting catalogue of activities and interests. almost like a resume but not in a way of trying to promote yourself. i write about my past on a few different planes but would never think to navigate it with that kind of map. so that was interesting. that said, i think my favorite parts of your essay are the ones that deviate from it, about your mom, your dad, and especially your brother.

  3. Ryan Shea

      i’m surprised i read all of this. i think i relate to everyone around you, or see parts of myself the way you see them, so there was that momentum. online communities (gaming and not), reading from genre to literary and maybe back, phases of obsession and (for me at least) rejection are all good. thinking about the past can work. it can be positive, constructive, creative, and i think your experiment in it here is good. thanks.

  4. Ken Baumann

      Thank you. And weeiiird (pppooorrrkk) about the redhead. They invade.

      As far as time spent attentively, I feel my life is just that: a path through all of those hobbies, activities, collections, etc. Maybe shifting out of that and into love (most intense attention) should be called maturity.

  5. Anna

      awesome! love it ken:)

  6. Christopher Higgs

      Loved this, Ken. Loved getting a glimpse of younger you.

      Would be awesome if you could somehow embed or incorporate The Stronghold in the next book you write.

      PS – I am going to borrow your phrase from Gifted & Talented class, and put it on all of my syllabuses from now on: “Participation grade will be based on intensity of enthusiasm.”

  7. Anonymous

  8. Justin Taylor

      A++. Thanks, Ken.

  9. Ken Baumann

      Thinking about the thing I’m writing now: it sort of is. Hah! Odd.

      Yes! Glad I could provide a phrase.

  10. Ken Baumann

      Thanks, man!

  11. mark leidner

      like luke skywalker describing his early years on tattoine…

  12. ImaGleek3

      I’m glad I read this it was really good and I really enjoyed reading it