Thursday, October 27, 2011

California Dreamin'

Vinny, Fugwuh and I shared an apartment our first two years of college.  Actually, Vinny and I lived there two years.  Fugwuh left after a year to go live with a cousin in Seattle because, why not?  It was a bold move considering he didn’t really know the cousin too well; just called him up and went for a visit and the next thing you knew he was moving.  I greatly admired him for it. 

Our apartment was much nicer than what we should have been able to afford on our budget.  We only added it to our list of possible abodes as a lark, assuming it would be out of our price range.  The building was less than five years old when we moved in; our two-bedroom unit was plenty big and in great condition.  In fact, we almost didn’t get the apartment.  When the manager learned that we were three young guys, she was hesitant to rent it to us.  Because of Fugwuh’s aforementioned boldness, he called and pestered her several times.  She eventually agreed to rent to us and the first year went swimmingly.  When Vinny and I went to the office to sign our second year’s lease, she confided to us that she had been worried.  “Three young guys living together can be trouble. But not you boys!  You’ve been model tenants.”

She was a single woman in her forties and the “office” was her apartment.  I couldn’t believe how much stuff could fit into an apartment.  In our living room we had a couch, two end tables (which were two stacked cases of empty beer bottles) desk, T.V. stand, T.V., Sega Genesis, VCR, and a stereo.  Oh, and a dying plant.  The manager’s apartment looked like a home.  She had nice furniture and had paintings on the walls.  There were plants everywhere.   An aquarium covered most of a dividing wall.  And she had air fresheners somewhere that made the place smell nice.  Looking around, I was sure that she had food in a cupboard or two and I guessed she had more than a few ketchup packets and beer in her refrigerator.  Yes, this woman had her shit together. 

I didn’t feel like a model tenant and wondered if she had us confused with someone else. “What makes us model tenants?” I asked.

“I haven’t heard a peep from you.  I’ve never seen a bunch of drunk kids out on your deck.  And not one complaint from a neighbor! Not one. And you always pay your rent on time.”

All of that was true.  We’re not lunatics.  And though we drank enough beer and vodka to make a Packer fan proud, we never felt the need to run around the complex naked.  We played video games and got drunk.  Still, I was surprised that that was model tenant material. “That’s a pretty low bar.  Wouldn’t a model tenant be volunteering to pick up cigarette butts in the parking lot or something?”  Aren’t we supposed to be quiet and pay the rent on time?

“Yes. But not many people manage to do both.” 

California moved in a month or two after we did.   I don’t know if he paid his rent on time.  I do know that we didn’t here a peep from him. Until we did.  I think he lived across the hall from us for a month before we saw him.  Then, one evening when I came home from work, Vinny told me he caught a glimpse.  “Well, I saw the neighbor today.  Fuckin’ California dude in his twenties.  Dyed blonde hair.  He drives that Mitsubishi with the sunroof.  I followed him in today and saw inside when he opened his door.  All black furniture with white pillows and shit. Plants all over the damn place.”

“Fucking awesome!” I said.  We loved Assholes even then, probably especially then actually.  We Bulls could spend an evening of high-hilarity making fun of douches.  Luckily when you’re an 18 year-old college student, you’re never very far away from someone worthy of your scorn.  And now I learned that we were right across the hall from one!  Fake Blonde! Trendy black furniture! A Mitsubishi! House plants!

My gay-dar is weak.  I just don’t think much about sexuality.  Unless a man asks if he can put his penis in my butt, I pretty much just assume he’s heterosexual.  Or rather I don’t think about where he enjoys putting his penis at all.  No doubt if my gay-dar was stronger, it would have pinged like the Red October whenever California was near.  And it would have been wrong.

One evening Spot and I were headed down to McDonald’s for a late supper, on foot because we were too drunk to drive.  As soon as we stepped out the door and into the parking lot I heard it:  a woman screamed in sexual ecstasy. 

“Whoa! You heard that right, Spot?”

“Ah, yeah.”

It was a nice summer evening and most of the apartment windows were open. We stopped to listen. It didn’t take long to zero in on the window from which all manner of grunting and screaming was pouring out.  It was a second floor window. We went and stood right beneath it, obviously, and enjoyed the show.  Yes, that was definitely California’s apartment.  I added the sound he makes during sex to my “things I know about California” file.  I also added the sound at least one woman makes while having sex with him to the same file.  I have to admit that that bit of info didn’t make me like him any more.  I had certainly never made a woman sound like that. And because he was a dipshit I couldn’t bring myself to respect even this about him. 

Spot and I moved on after a minute of standing and listening.  We walked the mile to McDonald’s picked up supper and walked back home.  A beautiful woman with tussled hair and an odd look on her face hurried down the stairs as we were walking up.  She had to be the screamer; she certainly looked like she had been given a pretty good rogering very recently.  We were excited to share the news with Vinny.

“So California just fucked the hell out of some hottie and we heard a fair amount of it from the parking lot!”  I told him.

“Interesting,” he replied, his voice trailing off.  “I heard her leave just now.  They were yelling at each other.   She told him not to call and slammed the door when she left.”

That pissed me off.  I hate it when men treat women like shit.  “What a dick!  Maybe she wouldn’t scream in my bed but she sure as hell wouldn’t slam the door when she left. Not that she’d even leave if you catch my drift.”

Our apartment complex consisted of two long three-story buildings.  The buildings were perpendicular to each other and formed an “L”.  The parking lots for each were on the outside of the “L” and the inside was a large lawn. The street was across the lawn from the bottom section of the “L” and boxed in the yard.  We lived in the vertical section of the “L” so our parking lot was accessible from the street. There was a long driveway from the road to the other building’s parking lot. So the view from our apartment was the yard, on the right side of which was the backside of the other building and across of which was the driveway to that building’s parking lot. 

One winter day there was a blizzard.  Neither Vinny nor I went to classes that day because of the storm but I did have to work that evening.  It was a dicey drive in to work in the afternoon and an even more dicey drive home. But that is what we Minnesotans must sometimes do in the winter.  I passed many cars in the ditch but luckily made it to the edge of home-- where I discovered that the parking lot hadn’t been plowed.  I shoveled a bit of a path- yes; smart Minnesotans keep a shovel in the trunk- and gave it hell. I managed to slip, slide and burrow into something that could pass for a parking spot. 

I trudged across the parking lot, kicked aside enough snow to open the door, and walked into our apartment where I found Vinny laying on the couch, like a bastard, watching T.V.  Usually when I came home Vinny would nod or something equally unexciting.  He certainly never moved.  Today he sat up and I could see by the look on his face that he was thrilled about something.

“You’ve gotta look over at the driveway,” he said with a smile.

“Ok.” I answered suspiciously, “What’s going on?”

“Just look.”

I walked to the patio door and looked across the lawn to the driveway.  I saw a car, clearly stuck, about 10 feet into the driveway from the road.  It was dark but the car’s headlights were on and I could just make out that someone was in front of the car and looked to be shoveling. 

“Someone’s stuck?” I asked Vinny.  That didn’t surprise me.  Granted it was a bit odd that someone had tried to make it down the long driveway rather than parking in our parking lot, which was right off the street. But if they lived in that building it didn’t seem as ridiculous a notion as Vinny seemed to want me to believe.

“Not just ‘someone’, that’s California! And he’s been there for at least 3 hours!”

“California?!  What the hell is he doing over there?”


“But, why is he in the driveway?”

“No idea.  The driveway was sort of plowed earlier so maybe he liked the looks of it better.  He got stuck about 5 feet in.  And for whatever reason he decided it would be best to shovel his way 100 feet forward than just back out and try it over here.  God, it’s been a great night!  He even walked over here for a shovel. And didn’t change out of his work clothes.”  Vinny shook his head, still smiling.

We watched California shovel, pull ahead, get stuck, shovel, repeat for at least an hour.  Finally I said, “Vin, we must be wrong about people sometimes.  Clearly not everyone we mock deserves it.  But we’ve been much too easy on this one.”

Time has tempered my moral superiority. But I promise you this:  California is out there right now, acting like a douche.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

We Will Survive

“Survivor” shows are all the rage these days. We have Survivorman, Man vs. Wild, I Shouldn’t be Alive, Dual Survival, and Man, Woman, Wild to name a few.  And I’m proud to announce that Quadruple Survivor People vs. Themselves and Some Nature will premier next fall on Discovery.  It is the tale of my family and I as we take on the worst we have to offer each other.  Here is a bit of what you can expect:

Episode 1:  Mall of America

In this episode we are dropped in the middle of the Mall on the day after Thanksgiving.  We have no cell phones, no extra diapers, an umbrella stroller with a wobbly wheel, and one bottle of water. The producers give us (5) one dollar bills and keys to a minivan, which they tell us is parked somewhere in one of the Mall parking lots.  We have 12 hours to get to the van and drive to the nearest Red Lobster, which is 6 miles away.

Episode 2:  Olive Garden

The producers have us seated at a four-top table and do not give us a highchair- so no seat belts.  They place the menus, silverware, creamers, and sugar packets on the table in front of the toddler and tell us that none of those things can be moved or removed by anyone but him.  Elderly men trying to have a quiet reunion surround us on all sides.  The producers order for us:  spaghetti for the toddler, red wine and Chicken Parmesan for my wife, Beef Tortellini for my 5 year-old daughter, and a vegetarian dish for me. Half way through the meal, one of the producers comes to our table and tells our daughter that the dessert she had been promised is no longer available.  Everyone else will get his or hers, though, and there is no sharing.  It is raining when we leave.  They lock the doors behind us and when I reach into my pocket for the car keys, I discover that someone has stolen them.  What will we do next?

Episode 3:  Disney World on New Year’s Eve

The producers wake me up at 5 a.m. on the morning of this shoot and make me eat 10 White Castle cheeseburgers and drink a pot of coffee. Then they make me eat 5 Activia yogurts in the car on the way there. They take the toddler’s shoes and put a pebble in my daughter’s. They make my wife wear heals.  We get to the park when it opens and cannot leave until the fireworks show is over.  They tell Princess Jasmine to ignore me. At 4 in the afternoon, Mickey runs up to the toddler and kicks him in the shin.  Mickey then goes up to my daughter, gives her a hug, and says through a megaphone, “Hey boys and girls!  Look at this girl! She wants to give each one of you a hug!”

Episode 4:  Church

We go to church.

Episode 5:  Road trip

The task in this episode is to drive from St. Paul to Seattle in a 1997 Ford Escort with no stereo and no air conditioning over the Fourth of July weekend.  The producers rig the car so that a tire goes flat the first afternoon.  We’ll have to drive the rest of the way with the donut spare. There are a few Challenges in this episode:  I have to stop in a small Montana town, go into the diner and yell Obama in 2012; we must stop in another town where my wife must pick a woman at random and convince her that Obama was born in Hawaii; we have to drive though Salt Lake City with a “Legalize Same-Sex Marriage!” bumper sticker; and finally, when we get to Seattle we are required to yell, “Grunge sucks and so do electric cars you Kenyan worshipping hippies! Long live the NRA!”  Will we make it?

Episode 6:  Camping 

We spend a beautiful autumn weekend at a scenic campground in northern Minnesota. We have a great tent; nice sleeping bags; plenty of food, water and alcohol.  The catch:  My wife sees a mosquito on Friday.  Will she be able to go on?

Episode 7:  Camping Again

This episode finds us camping in Alaska. Same situation as above except this time a mosquito flies into my forehead at full speed and knocks me unconscious.  What will my family do without me?

Season Finale:  The Blizzard

A blizzard hits Friday night/Saturday morning knocking out our power and making our road impassable.  Power isn’t restored until Sunday evening, after I’ve missed the football game.  All we have all weekend is a deck of cards, candles and each other.  WTF?!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Aww, Shucks

My bully is still a douche.  I looked him up on Facebook and he looks like he walked right out of Central Casting.  He could be an extra on Jersey Shore. And you know those girls whose lips are scrunched up like idiotic ducks in every picture?  He’s married to one of those girls!  So, yes, I win.  Maybe I shouldn’t still be keeping score, but I am.  I sometimes daydream about being able to tell my bully, and everyone else who has ever told me I would “get killed” by life, to kiss my ass.  For this to be most effective I think it should be done on national T.V.  Maybe David Letterman will be telling me how much he loves my books and me, “Tom, forgive me for saying this, but you remind me of a cross between David Sedaris, Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, Mark Twain and James Thurb…”

“Dave,” I’ll say, “I don’t want to stop you when you’re on a roll.  But I’ve got to get something of my chest.  You remember that story about my bully?” 

“Of course.  That was your first big piece if I remember correctly.”

“That’s right, Dave.” And here I’ll pause and look directly into the camera, “Hey, bully!  My family and I were out on George Clooney’s yacht last week- he spoils my kids rotten!- and I was telling him, Brad and Angelina about you, and they all said, ‘Who?’  Anyway, kiss my ass!” Then I’ll look back at Letterman and apologize, “Sorry, Dave. Can I say that on T.V.? Anyway, what were you saying?”

As much of a cliché as my bully is, I have to admit that I’m a bigger one.  I’m the The-Only-Person-He-Has-To-Blame-For-His-Slow-Start-Is-Himself guy. But  (what the hell, let’s keep the clichés flowing shall we?) there is a monster stirring inside me, the writer that I was born to be fighting to the surface.  With every post, every nice comment, I’m less interested in staying mediocre, less afraid of success.  Yes, you read that correctly.  I have until now been afraid of success.  I used to bitch and moan that my blog was not more popular, but I never did what I needed to do to make it popular.   I’d promote myself to a point and then stop.  And I never got serious about trying to get published, about growing as a writer- not because I was afraid publishers would say no, or that I wouldn’t grow as a writer, but because eventually someone will say yes and I’ll get better at writing. 

And when I did start to promote myself, and my Facebook page started growing, I shied away from taking a stand on anything.  It’s not that I stayed away from controversy; the problem was that I was careful not to have an opinion.  I was afraid to give readers something to dislike.  Which brings me to “A Boy Abused”.  I always knew that to be the kind of writer I wanted to be I had to write that post.  And now that I have, I’ve given my family something I don’t think they’ve ever had before:  A reason to dislike me.  My old position was comfortable and safe.  I could decide whether or not to have a relationship with whomever I wanted.  With that post I ceded some of the high road. It was a personal risk.  Time will tell what, if anything, that risk will cost me.  I already know what I gained.  I gained the certain knowledge that I’m not holding myself back anymore.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Boy Abused

(Author’s note:  I will use quotes here. They are almost certainly not exact, but I will only use them when I am certain that they are very close to the words said at the time, and are certainly the same in spirit and tone.)

My name is Tom and I am the child of an abusive father and a passive-aggressive, possibly narcissistic mother.  Like many alcoholics, it has taken me a long time to write those words.  Like with alcoholism, there is no shame in being abused. But also like alcoholics, abused people often feel shame:  Ashamed that they were abused, ashamed they can’t put it behind them, ashamed for talking about it, ashamed for sounding whiney when there are people who have it much worse.  I was not physically abused. I was intimidated and bullied-- verbally abused into a non-bloody pulp.  Before I could write this I had to admit to myself, and now to you, that that was plenty bad.  No, I was not physically abused, but I may as well have been and I always feared that I would be the next time my dad exploded.  And anyway the scars that really last, even from physical abuse, are the emotional ones. 


My dad “taught” me how to swim when I was four.  We were on a family vacation in sunny Florida.  Dad took me to the swimming pool, walked me to the deep end and threw me in.  When I made it to the surface I saw that he had moved to the shallow end and was waiting for me there.  He didn’t say anything. But if I close my eyes I can still see his face. It said, “swim or die.”  I swam.  But I also cried. “Quit being a pussy.  You’re fine,” my dad said as I climbed out.


This is hard as hell to write.  And not because I think anyone will look at me differently.  The people I care about won’t.  They’ll know I’m not looking for pity.  It is hard because I know my parents might read this; I know for sure that people who know and love them will.  Yes, some of those people might think less of me for bringing this up.  But that is blame-the-victim 101 and I’m not going to concern myself with clowns who do that.  It’s hard because there is a part of me that doesn’t want to hurt my parents; that doesn’t want to be the one to say this about them.  Odd, isn’t it?  But I’d wager a lot of money that many people who’ve been abused feel that way.  That’s one of the symptoms of abuse; one of the fucking ridiculous powers the abusers and abettors have over their victims.  Not only do they abuse, they seem to think they should be able to get away with it, too, without so much as a peep from the abused.  It’s impolite to talk about.  Well guess what?  I’ve decided that I didn’t ask for the childhood I got and it is not my job to keep quiet about it.  Word to the wise:  If you don’t want your kid to say you abused him…don’t abuse him.    

My dad was an untreated bi-polar sufferer throughout my childhood. We moved a lot. By the time I was in fifth grade I had gone to three different schools and had been home-schooled for part of a year.  I had lived in a group home for mentally retarded adults, on an island in Lake Vermillion, on a farm, and in another lake cabin.  When I was 10 we moved from northern Minnesota to The Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul area).  We moved in with my maternal grandparents while my parents got their shit together and I started at my new school a couple months into the school year.  As it happens, the suburb where my grandparents lived had an excellent competitive youth’s swim club.  I don’t know why but my parents signed me up for the club.  There were no tryouts; I was just on the team.  It’s as if the club trusted that no parents would sign their son up for such a competitive club if he could barely swim.  The swim team was a huge time commitment:  we practiced a couple nights a week and had meets every Saturday.  And, as you may have guessed, all the other kids were really good.  They all wore Speedo-type swimsuits and goggles.  I was not so prepared of course; I wore bulky trunks and had no goggles.  All I remember of the practices was the warm-up, which was simple:  one hour of swimming laps, with no breaks.  Anyway, by the time practice was over, I was completely worn out, my eyes bloodshot and swollen shut because I had to swim with them open, without goggles.  The rides home from practice were horrible.  My dad was at his lowest point- living in his in-laws basement, depressed, etc.  And, as his oldest son, it was my job to make him feel better. I was failing miserably.  He’d let loose tirades on me in the car. I was worthless, probably the worst swimmer on the planet.  He’d tell me it would be fine if I would just try. But he could tell I was just fucking around in the water like a dog or some shit like that.  I don’t remember all the words exactly- that is my coping mechanism.  What I do remember though, and perfectly, was the feeling in the car.  My mom sat next to him, doing nothing, and that felt ugly.  My brother sat next to me and didn’t dare say anything.  But I could feel his support, his heart breaking that this was happening to his big brother.  And I remember that I could cry--maybe not sob, but I could let tears fill my eyes because, hell, they were swollen shut anyway.  That was a relief, to be able to be a “pussy” in front of my dad without him knowing. 

Practice was terrible.  The meets were worse.  I always finished last by a huge, humiliating margin.


My dad wanted me to sign up for football in seventh grade, my first year of junior high school.  The football informational meeting was after the first day of school. I didn’t go.  When I got home he was pissed that I hadn’t gone to the meeting. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” he yelled, “You’re a fat fucking pig. You should be playing football with people your age and not your (2 years younger) brother and his friends.  You’re going to fall on one of them and kill him.  Are you afraid you’re going to get hurt? I’m not going to raise a fucking kid who’s afraid of his shadow.”  That’s close to a direct quote. I know because even at twelve years old I recognized the irony of that statement. My dad had raised a kid who was afraid of the world.  But having no choice, I went to the garage and got on my bike.  I cried all the way back to school and eventually walked into the meeting very late.  I can only imagine how much like prey my body language made me look.  Everyone stared at me.  The coach said something stupid that made me feel worse (Christ a lot of those guys are assholes.) When I walked past a kid named Brent, he tripped me and said, “You’re going to get killed.”

After the meeting, I rode my bike across the parking lot and saw Brent and two other guys walking on the right side of the road I needed to take home.  I steered to the left side of the road and hoped for uneventful passage.  Unfortunately Brent heard my bike and turned to see me right as I passed them.  He ran across the road and shoved me so hard that I flew into the ditch.  I fell off the side of my bike and skidded to a halt in the grass.  The crotch of my pants ripped when I flew off my bike and I had cuts on my inner thigh and calf.  I landed on my shoulder and face, both of which started bleeding.  I looked up to see that the bullies were laughing at me, but was relieved to see that they wouldn’t pursue me into the ditch.  They were apparently satisfied that they’d done enough damage.  I limped to my bike, which had rolled probably 10 yards without me, and saw that it was badly damaged and unrideable.  I picked it out of the weeds, cut through the vacant lot I was now in, and walked the two miles home, carrying my bike because the front rim was so twisted it wouldn’t roll.  When I got home I tried to sneak down to my room so I could clean myself up.  I knew what my dad’s reaction was going to be and I wasn’t ready for it.  I didn’t make it.  He was right behind me as I walked into my room. 

“What happened to you?”

“Kid pushed me off my bike.”

“And you fucking let him?”

“Yeah. I let him.”

“Jesus Christ.  I know he wasn’t bigger than you.  He was probably stronger- less of a fat ass (I was maybe 10 pounds overweight.) We’ll finish this later.  I can’t even look at you right now.”

I heard him walk up the stairs and into the garage.  He found my bike, stormed back into the house and into my room.  “What did you do to your bike?”

“I fell off and it hit a rock I think,” I said quietly as I stared at the ground.

“You’re buying your next one.”

And so on.

Earlier I mentioned that my mother was unsupportive.  That is true.  And I excused it for a long, long time.  She certainly was abused, too, and she could tell some awful stories herself.  She and my dad divorced when I was thirteen. My mom found a good counselor and her parents helped pay for it.  She’d always tell me about her counseling sessions, and what a terrible husband my dad was.  Meanwhile, I missed a lot of school.  I literally made myself sick on average of a day a week, worrying about the daily bullying I faced at school.  No one got counseling for me.  At the time, I was convinced that my mom had had a terribly hard life and I felt sorry for her.  I wanted to make things easier for her.  But certainly some part of my psyche that I wasn’t aware of was demanding attention; part of me was mad at her, too.  My mom and I had some screaming matches that would end with her crying and telling me how worried she was that I was going to turn into my dad.  She’d tell me she was worried about my “latent anger” (by which she meant that I was angry at my dad, but taking it out on her). I was worried about that, too, convinced I was a horrible person actually.  Nothing my dad ever did made me feel as bad about myself as her saying that to me.  I thought about suicide a lot; even told my mom during one of our fights that I thought about it.  She was pissed that I put that on her, stormed out of the house and went for a walk to cool down (something her counselor had apparently told her to do). 

I started working as a weekend paperboy when I was twelve and played baseball and basketball.  After my parent divorced, one of my mom’s brothers helped me with my Sunday route and even took me out for breakfast when we were done.  He came to nearly all of my baseball and basketball games.  My mom constantly told me how lucky I was to have my uncle’s help and how grateful I should be.  And I was grateful.  Still am.  But…

After my first marriage ended in divorce after only 11 months (see previous post for that story) I had to do some serious soul-searching to figure out how I had ended up where I was, and on whose love and support I could count.  By that time I had been friends with many of the Bulls for nearly ten years- I knew they loved me.  Indeed, they had supported me emotionally all the way through high school and college.  And I had been supporting myself financially ever since I’d moved out of my mom’s house during my first year of community college.  My dad helped me pay for part of community college, but I had otherwise paid my own way. 

I moved from my marital apartment back into my mom’s basement. I paid for my own food, and she charged me rent.  She talked to me a lot about how hard her divorce had been, but never wanted me to talk about my divorce.  She didn’t listen; she waited for me to be done talking so she could say something about herself.  She was taking weekend classes and working towards her Bachelor’s degree when I moved back.  One time, over breakfast, she said, “I’m hurt that you’ve never told me you are proud of me for going back to school.”  I don’t remember what I said to her, but I remember going down to my room and thinking.  I realized that she had never told me she was proud of me when I graduated with honors from college. Never.   More and more I was aware of how mad at my mom I was- the anger I had always managed to keep in my subconscious as a child.

My brother was the first of us to actually say it out loud.  “You know, it’s wasn’t our job to find people to feed us.  We don’t have as much to be grateful for as that family wants us to believe.”

And the floodgates opened.  I was mad that my mom and her family had not helped me through any of the many hardships I had already faced:  parental divorce, being bullied at school, suicidal thoughts, depression, paying for and working through college, finding a job, my own divorce.  I started distancing myself from them.  I moved out of my mom’s basement and into the Bullpen with my dear friends.  I drank a fucking shitload of alcohol. I tore away the layers of bullshit and learned who I was, who loved me, who didn’t, and what I had to offer the world.  Stacy got divorced.  We began dating and got married.  She told me that everything I was beginning to love about myself was true.  She loved me. And I literally haven’t doubted for a second since marrying her that I’m a great human being who had a forgettable childhood.

Then, last year, after ten years with Stacy, my relationship with my mom’s family ended.  I had spent much of the previous decade in Stacy’s and her mother’s loving arms.  We visited my grandparents and uncles, and were always nice and sweet, but I didn’t waste much time telling them about myself because I knew they didn’t care.  I had long since come to terms with that. Look, you can’t make someone love you. But you can know who loves you and who doesn’t and spend your energy and love accordingly.  And that’s what I did.  Until last Christmas, when we were unable to bring the fruit tray we were tasked with bringing because every store I tried was closed (even the Jewish ones!  I couldn’t believe it.)  Stacy felt bad about showing up at my grandparents’ empty handed but I assured her it would be fine. “They don’t pay attention anyway. And besides we’ve hosted plenty of holidays and never asked anyone to bring a damn thing. My mom has never once hosted a holiday.”

Blog readers will now recall the letter my family mailed me a few days after Christmas:  The one written by my grandpa, re-written by my mom (because grandpa’s penmanship is illegible) and, as I learned from my brother who was there when it was written and unable to talk anyone out of it, put in the mail by my uncle and his wife who felt I needed to be brought down a few notches; the one in which my family expressed their extreme displeasure at my not bringing the fruit, which was a sure sign that I didn’t appreciate everything they had done for me over the years; the one in which my family asked why I had been so distant and disrespectful, so ungrateful;  the one in which they asked what they had ever done to me; the one in which they accused me of being too rich for them and thinking they were poor, shanty Irish.  Yeah, that one.  I was no longer in such a forgiving mood after reading that letter.  I believe that my mom did the best job she could.  Nothing would have made me happier than showing up and smiling on holidays and birthdays and never mentioning a word of my displeasure.  But that goddamned letter!  I called my mom. “Fuck you, fuck them, FUCK them!  I’m done,” I said through tears.  “No one over there ever did shit for me but go to a few games. FUCK!  And I was fine just letting it go. But now you have the motherfucking balls to send me a letter and tell me I’m not grateful?!  Jesus Christ!  Instead of saying you’re sorry for not getting me counseling, for telling me how much help counseling was helping you, for ignoring me when I was suicidal, for charging me rent when I moved home after my divorce, for making me pay for my divorce lawyer when I know damn well grandpa paid for yours- instead of apologizing, you’re sending me a letter and telling me I’m fucking ungrateful?! I’ve worked since I was 12 years old. I put myself through college. I graduated with honors. I have a fantastic wife and kids. I’m in Mensa. Has anyone, ANYONE said they were proud of me?! NO. (In fact, when I told everyone that I had passed the test and was in Mensa, my uncle said, ‘Well we all know people who are book smart who can’t even tie their shoes’.)  You know what? Fuck you. I’m done.”

And I haven’t talked to anyone in that family since, except my mom.  She begged forgiveness (she’s quick on her feet).  I told her I could absolutely forgiver her, as I had my dad, if she would just admit she had made some mistakes; that it was ok for me to be mad at her too; that she had contributed some to my misery; and that she was sorry.  We met for lunch a couple weeks after that phone call and she couldn’t do it.  “I’m sorry I married your dad,” was the best she could do. So there is nothing to forgive- she had done no wrong.  I disagree but I’m not going to beat a dead horse. I’ve seen her a few times since because my kids love her and she’s grandma.  But my brain’s nerve endings are calcified when it comes to her and that family.  I just don’t care anymore.

Stacy and her mom responded perfectly to that letter.  They got mad as hell. My mother-in-law asked me, “What the hell is wrong with those people?  You’re nothing but sweetness and goodness.”  My god, that was nice to hear.  Yes their anger allowed me to let my anger go and to simply be sad; sad that I could no longer hold any delusion that that family loved me.

My brother and I have a good relationship.  We’re probably not as close as brothers who were raised together in a warm, loving home would be, but we love each other.  His support and friendship in adulthood is a huge reason for my current well-being. And there is this:  During those damn swim meets my brother would walk along the pool beside me, cheering me on.  Yes, that is the memory of my time as a competitive swimmer that I choose to keep.  And it still makes me weep.

I posted on Facebook a week or so ago that I was thinking about writing this.  I wrote that I’ve always been hesitant to dwell on it because I didn’t want to appear whiny.  We all know that many people have had it far worse that I did.  And to be honest, I’m scared to this day, because it left such a mark on me, that someone, upon hearing some of the details of my childhood, will say, “You’re still complaining about that? That’s not bad at all.  Grow up.”  There were a dozen or more comments on that post, every one of them supportive.  One of them, from a woman whose life story is incredibly sadder than mine, responded to my question of seeming whiny with this:

“Nope. If you sound whiny to others, then f*ck 'em! Some people need a dose of reality, that this stuff does happen, everyday, to more people than they realize. But, as you can see, even though we have dealt with this crap, its made us who we are...we're not bitter or mean, or angry people...we are productive, caring members of society. We function normally everyday, and we don’t dwell on the crap that happened, we share it when it’s appropriate, especially if it helps another person come to terms with something that happened to them.
I don’t tell others my story for any pity, I tell it to let others know that these things do happen, and they can happen to anyone. People that have had things like this happen aren’t psycho crazy, they can be anyone. It makes you care about others even more, you never know what others are going through, so you tend to be nicer and more caring to others--even complete strangers.
And the strangest thing that I have noticed, people that have dealt with a lot of tragedies in their lives, are the funniest mo-fo's out there. Abused and battered, lived in name it, they’re hilarious sons of bitches! We have an AWESOME sense of humor!!!”


I actually have an ok relationship with my dad now. He is really, truly sorry. He was miserable and dreadfully depressed back in the day and he took his great and understandable frustrations out on my mom and me. I suspect he was abused when he was a child.  Those aren’t his excuses- he wouldn’t make them.  That is my explanation.  And they do not excuse his abuse.  But I’m a man now and a father, and I understand him. He is medicated now, and better.  I don’t see him often and I’ll always guard myself when I do.  But he is a sweet and tender grandpa and that makes me extremely happy.  And my life is so good now, and I’m so convinced that I’m a good person deserving of love and happiness that he couldn’t hurt me anymore anyway. 

I have, as my mom used to like to tell me I would, turned into my dad.  Which is not to say that I have continued the cycle of abuse.  But he and I are a lot alike.  I have his depression, his wit, his intelligence, and yes, his temper.  But my mom made me feel so ashamed of my temper that I’ve been working since I was a young teenager to keep it in check.  And I’ve been so successful that most people who know me now will be surprised when they read that I’m not the most patient man they’ve ever met.  There is a powder keg inside of me that wants to erupt. When I first began training myself to relax and let go of my anger I had to take it one day at a time, again like an alcoholic.  “I will not lose my temper today.”  I’ve been doing it so long now that I don’t have to think about it much.  Still there are times when I lose it, and yell at my kids and my wife.  And while I’m not proud of that, I’m not ashamed of it either.  It is what it is.  I do not say hurtful things to them; I don’t make them feel like dirt.  And when everyone has cooled down, I apologize.  I tell my kids that I am an imperfect human, just like them, and I show them that sometimes relationships get hurt, but they can be fixed. 


A note to my fellow abused:  You cannot ignore your childhood; you are not being a baby when it still affects you.  People with happy childhoods get to remember theirs; you get to remember yours.  And remember, almost no one in the world even knows who you are.  Those who do think you’re nice enough.  A few really love you. No sane and decent person who knows you thinks you’re a rotten piece of shit. No one. You’re not.  The rotten things that your abuser said about you are untrue.  The nice things people have said about you are true.  Your so-called rotten qualities are imperfections that everyone has.  Your good qualities are things you’ve worked hard on, and you deserve to be praised for them.  The best way to “beat” an abuser is to live a happy life, to be happier that your abuser has ever been.  What are they going to say to you then? 

“You’re a goddamned fat piece of shit.”

“And yet my adorable spouse loves me and I just got back from an awesome vacation with my kids, who think I’m great.  So, yeah, I guess I disagree about the piece of shit part at the very least.”

A note to people who love my fellow abused and me:  Sometimes we need to talk about our miseries.  Help us into a good counselor so we can.  You will not believe how good it feels to tell someone all the shit that happened to you and have him/her respond, “Wow. That was shitty. You are doing great considering all that shit. I’m very proud of you.”  Also, give us a lot of hugs.  There is probably a hole in us that will never be filled because of the hugs we did not get as children, but it is sure nice when you try.  And you cannot tell us enough how proud of us you are, how great you think we are, and how much you love us.  This is true for everyone, but it is more true for us.  We need constant encouragement because there is a voice in our heads that will not shut up telling us that we will fail, that we always have and we always will.  We need your voice telling us that we will succeed; that we’ve come this far and we can go further.

So how did I survive my childhood and become a fairly emotionally healthy adult? My survival started during the misery.  For external support, I made and kept very good friends, all of whom I am still friends with to this day.  They are the Bulls, of course, and as I have written before, they are my brothers.  I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that I wouldn’t be where I am without those guys.  And I also helped myself by keeping a small corner of my brain open to the idea that I was going to be an adult eventually.  And I saw how miserable my parents were. So in that corner of my brain I began developing my long-term plan:  I would grow up to be The World’s Greatest Father; I would be gentle; I would be happy; and, because when I was a defenseless, powerless kid I worried constantly, when I grew up and had more power and control, I wouldn’t worry.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I was practicing the Serenity Prayer – controlling what I could.  I had a miserable childhood, so I refuse to have a miserable adulthood.  I know for many people it goes the opposite. I figure I’m going to be a happy adult longer that I was a miserable kid, and I’ll take that deal.  I just absolutely refuse to worry. Period. “Things will work out; they always do.” I say that so much that I think my wife gets sick of hearing it.  But I believe that will all of my heart.  There is a spiritual element to that which is at odds with my other beliefs.  I don’t believe in God, per se, yet I believe that things will work out for me.  And no one can tell me any differently.  Why don’t things work out for everyone?  I wish I knew.  But at the end of the day, that is not my problem.  Things will work out for me.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Friends Like Us

The incomparable Kurt Vonnegut wrote that he knew what married couples were actually arguing about when they fought. They may have been saying, “You stay out too late!” but what they meant was, “You’re not enough people!”  The first time I read that I was fully in “Kurt Vonnegut Can Do No Wrong” mode (I hope I always will be in that mode) but I didn’t entirely agree with that statement. In my defense, I was newly married and certain that my wife would be all I ever needed. Silly me. As you well know, my wife is herself incomparable, and is my savior…but she’ll never be everything I need. And I’ll never be everything she needs. That’s impossible nonsense. Vonnegut was right again.  His point was that families had gotten so small, and people had become so isolated, that many marriages couldn’t stay standing when the winds started blowing.  You, dear reader, are a human. You need people you can laugh and cry with; you need many people in your life— people who are making the same mistakes you are-- assuring you that you’re not alone.  Without all those people you’ll start feeling lonely, even if you’re in love with one person.  And what happens when you feel lonely even when you’re in love with one person? A lot of things that make staying in love with one person pretty damn hard.

I didn’t start writing my blog so that I could meet people. I started it because there was a writer in me who needed to get out. But I was a lonely stay-at-home dad and there was more than a little part of me who wanted to be involved in the world.  I wanted my words to go out into the world and mingle, bringing me with them. As popular as blogging and social media are these days everyone knows that people who rely on them for social interaction are losers right?  Social media are merely the next in the line of technological advances designed to keep us inside, in the dark and alone right?  Wrong.

For a few decades, Vonnegut was right. Americans didn’t have enough people.  Family’s dispersed and shrunk.  People lived in their basements in front of television sets. Yes and televisions turned people into zombies, sucking life and giving nothing but a few laughs in return.  And wives looked across the blue glow and saw dipshits sitting there like lazy, boring dipshits. And men looked over and saw women who drove them nuts and who wouldn’t stop trying to tell them stupid shit.  And you know what happened to marriages.   Husbands and wives needed someone to whom they could vent their frustrations.  They needed people who would make them feel less lonely. And they did not have them. Can a marriage be saved if each partner has 10 minutes a day to vent to someone else?  Yes.  One can relieve a lot of pressure in 10 minutes. Imagine shoveling shit out of your house so it’s not in there stinking everything up. Ahhhh.

Enter Facebook.  And more people.  Don’t get me wrong, Facebook cannot replace good old-fashioned, in-the-flesh, friends and family.  But it really can add people to your life.   I have met some good people on Facebook with whom I’ve had very real, very deep conversations.  And I’m sure I’ve met some fake people, too. But who cares if they are real people or people pretending to be someone else?  I am “friends” with a few celebrities on Facebook.  Because there is really no way of knowing if they really are who they claim to be there are many people who don’t believe them.  And they think those of us who are the celebrity’s “friends” are stupid sheep.  My response:  I’m not following this celebrity over a cliff; I’m having a few laughs before bed. What the hell do I care if it really is a celebrity who is making me laugh? I don’t.  It is a person, an interaction, a human connection.  And when I climb into bed and whisper to my wife, “Jason Bateman thinks I’m funny,” she smiles and says, “me too.”  And I realize that my wife is my biggest fan, and I’m happy.