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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Mr. Know-It-All

The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder

John Waters

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Somehow I became respectable. I don’t know how, the last film I directed got some terrible reviews and was rated NC-17. Six people in my personal phone book have been sentenced to life in prison. I did an art piece called Twelve Assholes and a Dirty Foot, which is composed of close-ups from porn films, yet a museum now has it in their permanent collection and nobody got mad. What the hell has happened?

I used to be despised but now I’m asked to give commencement addresses at prestigious colleges, attend career retrospectives at both the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the British Film Institute, and I even got a medal from the French government for “furthering the arts in France.” This cockeyed maturity is driving me crazy!

Suddenly the worst thing that can happen to a creative person has happened to me. I am accepted. How can I “struggle” when my onetime underground movies are now easily available?—even Multiple Maniacs was rehabilitated music-rights-wise and is back in theatrical release from Janus Films, the original distributor of Godard and Truffaut movies, for God’s sake. Pink Flamingos has played on television! How can I whine about my films being hard to see when Warner Bros. now handles many of my titles and Criterion, the classiest of all DVD distributors, is restoring some of my rudest celluloid atrocities? Even the Museum of Modern Art now has in their collection the elements of my earliest 8mm movies that have never been formally released, and, jeez, seven of the books I’ve written are still in print and two of them became New York Times bestsellers. How could that be? How?

I can’t even impersonate a damaged artist anymore. I have actually had friends for fifty years and some of my dinner dates are not tax-deductible for business—the sign of really having a successful personal life. Knock on wood, I’m in good health. Good Lord, I’m seventy-three years old and my dreams have come true. Couldn’t you just puke?

Success is not the enemy you may think it is when you’re young, but if it comes too quickly it can be a high-class problem. Yes, you should feel slightly panicked if your insane early work is taken seriously without any initial resistance, but know that being a starving artist is an outdated concept. There’s nothing wrong with making money from doing something you love. You can be happy and fucked-up and still triumph, I promise you.

But suppose you’re still failing, struggling unsuccessfully to find your voice? You should ask yourself, am I the only person in the world who thinks what I’m doing is important? If yes, well, you’re in trouble. You need two people to think your work is good—yourself and somebody else (not your mother). Once you have a following, no matter how limited, your career can be born, and if you make enough noise, those doors will begin to open, and then, and only then, can you soar to lunatic superiority. Mr. Know-It-All is here to tell you exactly how to live your life from that day forward.

I’m never wrong—just ask Joan Rivers—well, you can’t, because she’s dead, but when she was alive, I introduced her to a date after we watched her perform in Provincetown and she said to him, “Are you with John?” When he replied yes, she advised, “Just do everything he tells you to do.” Joan knew I was infallible. She knew it raw.

First of all, accept that something is wrong with you. It’s a good start. Something has always been wrong with me, too. We’re in a club of sorts, the lunatic fringe who are proud to band together. There’s a joyous road to ruin out there, and if you let me be your garbage guru, I’ll teach you how to succeed in insanity and take control of your low self-esteem. Personality disorders are a terrible thing to waste.

Being crazy in a happy creative way begins and ends with your family. No matter how hard you try, as you get older, you turn into a twisted version of your mom and dad. No, it’s not fair. But too bad, you can’t choose the house you want to be born in, so just look at fate like a bingo card: sometimes you get a winner, other times you have to improvise, switch cards, and even cheat to not lose. That’s just how it goes.

Children can’t demand good parenting any more than their parents can expect to be made proud. I was lucky. My mom and dad encouraged my dreams right from the beginning even though they must have been scared of their firstborn, who arrived six weeks too early—a preemie. A teacup baby. A little boy slightly miswired, already not following the rules, ahead of his birth time and ready to roll. Maybe I was baptized too often, stripped of my inner coating of original sin. There’s only one thing wrong with the Waters baby—It’s Alive!

All I know is I was born with a screw loose. I realize now how hard it must have been for my parents to understand my early eccentricities. As a child in kindergarten I always used to come home from school and tell my mother about the twisted little boy in my class who’d only draw with black crayons and never talked to the other kids. I yakked about this unnamed friend so much that my mother eventually mentioned him to my teacher, who looked confused and then blurted, “But that’s your son!” I was creating characters early for myself and you should let your kids do the same. Having multiple personalities when you’re young is mandatory for a happy childhood.

A few years later, every morning I would slink down the steps of our family home on the way to school pretending I was the Nude Descending a Staircase painting I had read about in Life magazine. “What’s the matter with you, boy?” my dad would sputter, confused for good reason. “Haven’t you heard of Duchamp, fool?” I’d haughtily think without ever explaining out loud the roots of my fantasy behavior. My parents didn’t overreact; they just took a deep breath and opened their minds a little wider.

But suppose your mom and dad did freak? That doesn’t mean you have to punish yourself by repeating their humiliations for the rest of your life. Realize all childhoods are treacherous, followed by teenage years of further torture. Being an adult should finally be a relief. Don’t waste time spinning your wheels for the rest of your life trying to get back at your parents. Marvel at how they were even more neurotic then than you are now. It takes two to do an ass-backward tango, so why not dance?

Let’s be fair. Maybe you got on your parents’ nerves, too. After adolescence, stop trying to shock them. Haven’t they had enough? You’ve learned early how to push their buttons because you grew up with them pushing yours. But it’s a losing battle. Your parents’ fucked-upness came first.

Let’s say, for example, that you’re a gay “bear” and they’ve not only accepted your sexual preference but also the homo subculture you live in. You’re an overweight, hairy gay man who’s about to make an honest “husbear” out of your “significant otter” and your parents have agreed to come to the hirsute wedding ceremony in your hometown during the annual “Bearquake” celebration. Leave it at that. Don’t tell the relatives that the bridesmaids are all bear “blouses” (feminine tops). Let them figure that out for themselves. No need for them to know the best man identifies as a “dolphin” bear, a onetime fat hairball who tired of his faux-masculine role, shaved his entire body, and then started acting nelly while fluttering his arms like Flipper himself … or was that herself?

Radical kids forget to feel sorry for their liberal parents. They’ve tried to understand the ever-changing sexual politics of the young but sometimes they’re just plain flummoxed. These well-intentioned left-leaning folks spent a fortune to send their children to fancy private colleges, and they accept that there are no report cards given and one can actually major in “Folk Dancing in New Guinea.” When their daughter comes home on spring break sporting a full Gabby Hayes beard, announces she’s been taking male hormones, has cut off her breasts, demands to be called Fred, and needs $25,000 for a down payment on the first step of “bottom surgery,” well, they panic.

I tell these overwhelmed moms and dads, moms and moms, dads and dads, that they don’t get a choice these days. The proper response to “Do you have boys or girls?” is “Ever changing.” Two children might really be four if you count their sexual reassigned identities. He or she or “they” could then “come out” as gay in their new sexual being, change their mind and “come in” again to be straight, get a sex change, and end up being gay all over again.

The next minority? The few transgender souls who feel they’ve made an irrational decision once they’ve completed their gender switch and demand new surgery to go back to their original plumbing. Is “reluctant pussy” a new way to rebel? Can “dislocated dick” suddenly be the new frontier? Of course it can, and it’s bound to happen. Sooner than you think. There’s no such thing as boys or girls anymore. Get used to it.

So what is a real man today? A heterosexual male should realize (even if he was once a woman) that Freud was wrong about only one thing: men have penis envy, not women. Or at least they should. Envy of all penises that stand up for strong women without shrinking in fear or going soft at the first mention of any female “asking for it.” Jealous of all penises that have learned to own the male gaze with humor, lust, even dominance, as long as they are ready to turn the tables sexually and let any woman do the same invasive thing to them in return. Any self-respecting pubic unit should envy the more intellectually developed penises of others who have considered and tried to understand all erotic behavior as long as it’s between enthusiastic consenting adults.

Gay men must accept that there really is such a thing as a completely heterosexual man and that he shouldn’t have to put up with endless lewd cruising just because it’s coming from another male. Straight guys can mean “no,” too, just as a woman can, but at least they will now get how their girlfriends must feel every day of their lives walking the streets of any big city. Hip young queers appreciate how you modern hetero dudes sometimes experiment with us homos but need to understand that many straight guys just can’t hack performing fellatio, no matter how well intended, and feel much like the late actor/performance artist Spalding Gray, who, after trying to give a first-time blow job on a one-night stand in Greece just to see what it was like, wrote in his journal, “I find that I’m choking on what felt like a disconnected piece of rubber hose.”

But hetero guys, by the same token, don’t expect your straight girlfriends to be fake lesbians for your voyeuristic sexual arousal, either. And your penis is definitely not what Sapphos “need” or they wouldn’t be gay in the first place, would they? Would you like it if your lady love requested you to give your straight frat-guy roommate a “bro-job” for her watch-queen pleasure? Probably not. And listen, if you always expect blow jobs from your “old lady,” be prepared to embrace cunnilingus on demand with the same enthusiasm you expect from her.

Ladies, I understand your fury. We should all love women who hate men and hate men who hate women and then we’d be perfectly balanced radical feminists. Read Andrea Dworkin, one of the angriest women’s liberationists, who writes that heterosexual sex itself is the “pure, sterile, formal expression of men’s contempt for women.” “Intercourse,” she continues, communicates to woman “her own inferior status, impressing it on her, burning it into her by shoving it into her, over and over, pushing and thrusting until she gives up and gives in—which is called surrender in the male lexicon.” Should you believe what Dworkin suggests: that all penetration by heterosexual men is basically rape? Of course not! We, the enlightened, know that a woman can be fingered and free, but we must revel in all extreme sexual liberation movements, no matter how insane, to fully understand the human condition. We hold these truths and nontruths to be self-evident. We really do.

Aging gracefully is the toughest thing for a rebel. As the years pile on, you have two choices: being fat or gaunt. You should choose gaunt. People think I’m skinny, but after quitting smoking 5,965 days ago (I write it down every day), I’m really not. I have to watch what I eat and so should you. Eat sensibly on weekdays and irresponsibly on weekends. Weigh yourself every Friday morning when you’ll weigh the least and never on Monday mornings when you’ll weigh the most and keep a diary to follow your skinny progress. Then you can “Eat Your Way to Happiness,” as the hilarious title of that cheap paperback book I keep displayed in my Baltimore kitchen proudly proclaims. If diet fails, I’ve also figured out that if you wear something weird on your face (mustache) and feet (pointy-toe purple tennis shoes), nobody will look at the middle, where every ounce of my excess weight seems to end up.

Cooking Light should have been your bible. I always made every meal (even for company) out of this magazine, and, no, I was never paid to say that. I’m actually mad they didn’t hire me to be their advertising spokesperson. Was I too fat-friendly because of Hairspray and therefore suspect to readers who were trying to slim down? I would have told these future Twiggys-trapped-in-Tracy-Turnblad bodies that Cooking Light really worked—I never gained weight if I only ate meals made from their recipes. But now my favorite culinary magazine has suddenly gone out of business, so it’s too late. I could have saved them if they’d only given me a chance.

OK, here’s another thing I know. Nora Ephron was right to “feel bad about [her] neck,” as the title of her book admitted, and so should you as you mature. That is why turtlenecks were invented, and this article of clothing should be a staple of the wardrobe of anybody who isn’t a teenager. A T-shirt on any man over forty only makes him look fifty. I’ve recently seen photos of myself wearing this type of garment and I wanted to scream. Avoid the T-shirt look even if the temperature outside is ninety degrees. Even if you’re in the privacy of your own home. Bruce Springsteen may be the exception to this rule, but you’re not him, are you? Skinny jeans on anyone over twenty years old are also a no-no—you look like a loser in a Ramones Halloween costume. Shorts and no socks worn in winter are not youthful or butch, they’re just as dumb as the term “windchill factor.”

There’s no such thing as good plastic surgery if you notice it. “Good” would mean no one noticed and that is rare except in Switzerland, where “understated” has always been a national trait. In Los Angeles, pretty soon, everybody will look exactly the same: not old, just part fish, part android—desperate and surprised.

Nothing shouts midlife crisis louder than driving a convertible. All sensible old people know a breeze is your hair’s enemy no matter how much of it you have left. “Windswept” and “aging gracefully” definitely do not go hand in hand. Dyed hair on a man never fools anyone. No human has that dead single-color tone that Just For Men produces. Some males have been known to dye their beards with this same product, to match, which is doubly unfortunate. The thought of pubic dying is too atrocious to imagine but I’ve heard it’s been done. And of course a toupee is the ultimate violation. Every single person who sees you instantly spots your rug, knows it’s fake, and laughs at you behind your back. Worse yet, you can develop W.O. (wig odor), the nauseating smell of sweat and glue mixed together. Ewwww!

OK, I’ve given you pointers on family, parenthood, sexual identity, diet, beauty, and aging. You are now headed on the right path to some kind of newfangled serenity, but still, no matter what your age, you’ll need guidance on matters of the heart. Falling in love is a full-time job with little security. There’s no such thing as romantic unemployment. “One always loves the other more in a relationship,” my friend Pat Moran always warned, “so never let your partner know which one you are!” It is good advice but hard to follow. Blurting out “I love you” is always problematic because it demands an answer. A word of advice: never say “I love you” out loud to the person you do unless they are sleeping. It takes the pressure off. You can’t get an answer you don’t want. They hear you, subliminally. And when they wake, they’ll have absorbed it. They feel your love without pressure, control, or imbalance and they can love you back. And if the same thing is said to you while you are sleeping, you’ll realize it without knowing, wake up in a better mood, confident of well-being, aroused from the subconscious commitment, oddly emotionally satisfied, and yes … dare I say it? Content. It might only last one second and then vanish, but so what? A lot of people never get that one second. Go ahead. Whisper “I love you” tonight, very, very softly. But whatever you do, don’t let them hear you.

Copyright © 2019 by John Waters