The leader of the band

“…The leader of the band is tired and his eyes are growing old, but his blood runs through my instrument, and his song is in my soul…”       —Dan Fogelberg

Friends, it’s that time of year again, and I’m going to need a beer to mellow me out before I get started.  For the first paragraph anyway…but you know I might need more than one, just to make sure it’s decent.  I choose “Good Humans,” by Short’s Brewing Company, because the subject of this post is literally about a person with the last name of  Goodman.  And, he is exactly that, as you will see.

The beer is a hoppy brown, and it’s delish.  Those fellas and gals got it goin’ on in Bellaire, a sweet little sleepy town in Michigan.

So what it’s time for are those end of school year celebrations, and “graduations” that make me scratch my head as to why there is a need for an accompanying ceremony.  There are graduations from preschool, kindergarten, and anywhere from 4th through 8th, to the only one that truly matters, from 12th.  The shindigs for the kindy crowd are what really irritate me though.  As long as there are cupcakes and party favors, four year olds are all in, but they don’t understand what’s going on, and I hate it when adults impose their ideas on impressionable children.  It’s almost as if we are telling kids, okay, this wasn’t really “school,” because you didn’t learn anything of substance (total BS, but people believe it), so we are celebrating your departure to the real deal, kindergarten.  And then the next year its the same thing: okay, you did do more work in here than preschool, but we’re having another party and a fake diploma because you have no clue how much you’re going to wish you were back in here for the next eleven years, playing house and building weapons with Legos.  (Although those activities are sadly becoming extinct, too, but that’s another post).  So.  Not my favorite cultural phenom.

Not surprisingly, I also cast a sullen eye upon school award night soirees and the bling associated with them, for various reasons that I’ve spelled out in other writings.  But the truth is, I don’t begrudge the handing out of such items, IF they are meaningful.  And I’m going to tell you about the one and only time I got one, and who gave it to me.  More than that, I want to tell you about the man behind the award.

It was 1978, eighth grade, and I was caught in that weird place of not being able to play with Barbies anymore and yet having the conviction my parents were the stupidest creatures on earth. I literally did nothing but daydream through every class, to the point I’m surprised I didn’t flunk out.  Nothing held my interest, except English with Mr. Greene, and one other class.  A class in which I flourished without even really trying. 

If you guessed band, you’d be correct.

 We started in fifth grade.  In the beginning I actually wasn’t all that interested in it, except that my friends joined.  And I think I picked clarinet because of course, that’s what my friends chose.  So dumb, I think now.  We had a tough but respectful teacher, too, by the name of Ms. Jackson.  I couldn’t tell you an algebraic formula if my child’s life depended on it, but thanks to Ms. Jackson I will go to my grave knowing the proper “embouchure” (successful mouth placement) for the clarinet.  I remember being lectured by my mom about the cost of an instrument, even though mine was used, and that I’d better “stick with it.” At the time, the hour of band meant one less hour I had to deal with boring lectures and one more hour to socialize, so I continued.  And I practiced.  A lot.

Everybody hated practicing, but there was no getting out of it because you had to turn in signed slips verifying you did it. And no way was Mama Marlene signing her name to anything she hadn’t witnessed as truth, so there you go. A half hour every day I puffed on a reed in all my squeaky-mouse glory while Mom and Dad watched the news in the next room.

Blowing on that horn was the only homework that ever wasn’t a complete chore, as much as I probably complained.  Amazingly, my fat, short little fingers popped up and down on those keys with relative ease.  I also seemed to intuitively read music, to feel it, and nobody was more surprised than me.  My absolute favorite activity was playing the songs of the band “Bread,” in my room, and the required half hour bloomed into hours.  Remember Bread?  I had bought their piano sheet music with my own money, and though some of the translation was difficult I honked out “It don’t matter to me,” and “If,” over and over.  (Why such a talented group named themselves Bread is still a mystery to me, but hey, it was the seventies.  Enough said).

By now we had a new band teacher.  His name was Paul Goodman, and he was tall, thin, with lots of curly black hair and a bushy moustache.  He was (and still is) a quiet, humble, unassuming man, with kind of a bumbling professor aura about him.  But one of the things I remember most about Mr. G was his patience.  He rarely lost his temper, and I think even my immature twelve year old self marveled at that.  The bumbling aura didn’t fool me, either.  I was pretty sure the guy was a genius, so in awe was I that he knew enough about every instrument to be able to teach kids how to play them.  In particular, kids whose main musical goal in life thus far was to see who could produce the loudest burp or fart.

I don’t know how he corralled the squirrely bunch of us, but he did.  How does one manage to not strangle a big group of stinky, too talkative, completely unskilled seventh and eighth graders?  There were times even I became annoyed if the kids didn’t take his direction seriously, or if they just outright lacked a sense of rhythm.  When you’re seated right next to someone who is forever off beat, it messes with your tempo, so consequently you must squash the urge to stab them with your music stand.  At least, that’s what I wanted to do.  Thankfully he handled all of us with grace, as he would with all the kids that came after.  I went on practicing.

One day Mr. G sent home a flier about tutoring, and I dutifully took it home and didn’t give it another thought.  However my mother, the one least-likely-to-be-involved-in their-kids’- daily life, read it and promptly signed me up.  The next thing I knew I was having private lessons with Ms. Peterek, and she challenged me in all the ways I needed.  I don’t remember how long the lessons went on, but I remember the day Mr. G made an example out of me because of them.  He said, more than vaguely irritated with the whole class, “If you all took this tutoring like Ellen is doing, you’d improve. See how much it’s helped her, how good she is?”  OH MY GOD.  Let me disappear under the tubas right this second, is what I remember feeling, but there was something else too.  Did he just say, how good she is?  Does he mean ME, the kid who couldn’t read an analog clock until a few years ago?

Yes, yes he did, and I can’t describe the perfect storm of embarrassment and pride that filled up in me, but I do know I have never forgotten it.

Later on, Mr. Goodman asked all the band kids to cast a vote, and it was to nominate one of us as “Most outstanding band member of the year.”  We filled out slips of paper, all a-twitter as to who would bring this honor home, and one afternoon he said he had an announcement.  He had tallied the votes.  “I’m not surprised at your decision.  The winner is Ellen.”  Of course everyone clapped, because that’s what we are taught to do, and again I wanted to dive headfirst somewhere, because this was an imposter he was talking about.  The girl I knew didn’t get awards, except one for Presidential fitness, and even that one was questionable.  I suppose the fact it was a peer-given accolade made it seem more authentic, but I knew they voted for me because of him, because he had genuinely praised my ability time and again.

It’s not an exaggeration to say it was the first and last time it would ever happen in school, and that, too, I have never forgotten.

The certificate did get framed with a few track ribbons, and I hate to report that with all the paraphernalia of childhood it got misplaced somewhere along the line. Along with the feeling I was misplaced.  The following year, ninth grade, Mr. Goodman was gone, and with him my enthusiasm for band.  At this time students “auditioned” and were separated into two categories: concert or symphonic band.  I didn’t understand what this meant, until I found myself as one, if not the only one, of the freshman in the symphonic section.  All of my clarinet friends were placed in the concert band with a different teacher and in another room.  And this was so not fun.  Not to mention, I had no connection with the new instructor.  Mr. Maynard yelled, and unlike his predecessor he did have a temper, waving his arms maniacally and appearing permanently red-faced.

The dealbreaker for me was the fateful day he gave out random “playing tests” to the clarinets in my row.  We were now sitting according to ability; first row, first seat meant you were the head honcho, but anyone could be unseated by these tests.  Now, I don’t know if they still make students do this, but it can be a humiliating experience.  If you screw up, everyone is a witness to your incompetence, and that’s hard enough.  But add in the fact if you have your chair publicly taken over by someone who has outperformed you, AND they are a useless freshman, well…suffice it to say life in band deteriorated rapidly for me from that moment on.  I  was moved up a whole row that day.  I still remember my face engulfed in flames as I passed chair after chair, and the looks thrown my way.  So instead of being glad I was mortified.  I didn’t even feel the changes were due to my superior skills; I simply put myself in “the zone”, didn’t get nervous, and remembered what a special teacher had taught me.  Little did I know not everyone could pull this off so effortlessly.

I began to dread 6th hour after that; the whispering and gossip due to my new stature got the better of me.  My friends quit, and that year (to my parents’ great disappointment), so did I.  I dropped out of band because I wasn’t strong enough to face the petty jealousy of others, I loathed standing out, and it pains me to think about the what ifs.  What if Mr. G had never left?  With his support would I have found the fortitude to suck it up and go on to be a music therapist, something I’ve dreamed about?  Truly, I think the same scenario still could’ve occurred, of course, as the power of peers trumped all else at that time.  I’ll never know, and I don’t blame him for anything at all.  I just missed him.  I missed having someone who believed in me.

Fast forward much later to my own boys, enrolled in the same high school I’d been in.  At some point Mr. Goodman had come back to the district, this time as a guidance counselor, and I was delighted.  He worked his magic there, too, enrolling our older son into advanced placement classes and turning him onto an obscure college that specialized in music (in my son’s case, guitar).  He went to bat for our younger one over and over to make sure he got what he needed to graduate, a Herculean feat in itself.

What I’ve shared here is only a fraction of the many lives Paul has impacted.  In his guidance counselor role, he went way above and beyond scheduling ACT sessions.  For thirty plus years, he was a man who made sure pregnant teens could do work from home and take tests; who appeared at truant teens’ homes, banging on the door to get them to school, who knew about their life challenges and cared enough to see kids through them, who logged the extra mile and then some.  He even donated the money he made playing in a local orchestra to kids’ scholarship funds.  He showed up and showed faith, over and over, whether you were a failing drugged- out mess or the class valedictorian, and that’s what has made him so beloved.  It’s why every student invites him to their graduation parties, why every student speech includes gratefulness to him, and why he’s never forgotten by any of them.

When I heard that Paul was retiring this year, I thought about all the ripples of his service, the generations of families who experienced his kind and encouraging help.  For truly, that’s what I see him as: a servant to the needs of students, doing the work of God.  It’s what I aspired to when I was working, as well.  And what I try to do in my writing now.

So I wanted to tell my story, tiny among hundreds, for a couple of reasons.  One is that I feel we all need to call attention to goodness, wherever it is, but especially in regard to educators.  Looking back there was probably very good reasons we went through 3 band teachers in the time I recall.  (Mr. Maynard left, too).  Working well with children is a gift, and I was so happy to discover Paul hadn’t left permanently.  Whether it was molding budding musicians or securing student scholarships, he is the epitome of what caring, heart-full teaching is all about.  And the other reason I wanted to write this, was to say thank you to him.  Thank you for seeing a spark of talent in an insecure young girl all those years ago.  I know I speak for many when I say thank you for devoting your life to kids, and for all the things you did, unseen and unacknowledged.  May you know the world is a better place because of you.

Paul, you will be missed, but since I’ve seen you at Greenbush we know where to find each other.  Here’s to a new, well-deserved chapter in your life!  And friends who are reading this, may you or your family be blessed with a “leader of the band” like Paul Goodman.  Cheers to you all!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What twenty five years of marriage really looks like

I break with tradition today, as I write this not with beer in hand, but cinnamon tea. Yes, tea, because I am trying to cut back on beer consumption. Why, why, why would one want to reduce the drinking of silky smooth, roasty stouts and black ales, you ask?  Well, most of you reading this already know why.  I am trying to reduce the bloat that also accompanies the hoppy deliciousness of said concoctions, because of a certain son’s wedding to take place in August.  I know, I know, it’s not about me, but it’s also a good reason to shed unwanted pounds.  Also, it’s Lent.  I should be practicing self-denial of some sort.

So far it’s a dismal fail.

I’m doing aerobics, but I think I’m making up what I’m not drinking by eating more.  I’ve pretty much given up my main fat burner, soccer, because my creaky joints are ready to blow out any minute.  And my feet hurt like hell, despite good shoes and inserts, so that’s not helping my activity level nor my sloth-like metabolism.  We shall see how many more excuses I can drum up while I continue this painful beer withdrawal façade.  This may be the most short-lived diet ever.

So all the talk and anticipation of the upcoming marriage has made me ponder my own journey there, twenty five years ago this July.  There are some things that haven’t changed much, like bachelor parties and gift registries, and some things that are new, like wedding websites.  (Who knew?)  But back then I didn’t joyfully pore over colors, flowers, and invitations. I didn’t get misty eyed over picking out a dress, though maybe my mom did.  I think I spent most of the time preparing for the wedding wondering if we were making a mistake.

Yeah.  Not a very auspicious beginning, and to say our road was a rocky one is putting it mildly.  We ‘d dated for a year and landed head over heels in love, but then we were off and on through my going to MSU and his going to Purdue.  At last I graduated, and he was set to do the same the next spring.  I was ecstatic at having graduated, but not because I could storm the work force.  I was ecstatic because I could finally follow him and we could be together all the time!  And I did, and we were, and guess what happens when couples are together all the time!  Yep.  I found out I was pregnant that fall before, with the boy that is to be married this year.

What followed were some stressful months and panic.  How was this possibly gonna work?  No nest egg, no house, no job, (for me), etcetera. We were both scared, and it made what should’ve been a happy time, not so much.  But even amidst the considerable tumult, I willed myself to be calm, for the sake of my developing baby.  Something told me to hang in, to trust that it would be okay eventually.  Without sounding too floo-floo, I think this voice reassuring me was the Holy Spirit.

And I listened.

Here I go again, sounding floo-floo, but when Sean arrived it was as though a magic wand appeared.  Every worry and fear for the future, every tearful argument and niggling doubt, was eviscerated in one baby powder poof.  I’m not exaggerating.  It really was that instant and that powerful.  Here was this tiny, gorgeous, red-haired perfect miracle, spreading healing joy to us and everyone around us.  I wouldn’t trade what happened for a second; the minute I held him was absolute heaven.  I’d have to remember that feeling for the many sleepless nights to come, but that’s how God works.  He also made us circle our wagons and put on our big kid pants.  We’d become a family.  We would make it work.

So for two years we toiled, built a house, loved on our little toddler, and somewhere in there got a wedding going.  And I’m not gonna lie, that process wasn’t very romantic either.  The “proposal” was us looking at each other and saying it was probably time to start checking out rings.  Which I know sounds laughably lame compared to where the guy gets the ballpark to pop the question on the scoreboard, but I really didn’t care.  I just wanted our still fragile roots to dig in deep and get strong.

In the meantime, we participated in the required pre-wedding counseling, and I knew I would convert to Catholicism.  This was no sacrifice for me.  Religion hadn’t been a part of my life, though I’d always wanted it to be.  I immediately felt at home with the rituals, the devotion to Mary, and the sacred Trinity.  There was never any pressure from anyone to take this on; I wanted to, because I thought it would be one more step to solidifying us and providing stability for our child.  I was right about this to a degree.

Our wedding day came, and we were both nervous wrecks.  I wasn’t one of those blissful bawling brides sashaying down the aisle, searching out the gaze of my soul mate.  I was actually trying not to throw up.  My heart threatened to beat itself out of my chest.  I thought maybe I was having a panic attack.   My dad took my arm and patted it, but all I could think of was, “I don’t know if this is right. I don’t have a fucking clue about whether this is right..”  And someone said later that John’s foot wagged frantically back and forth when we kneeled at the altar, to the point they were laughing.  I remember during the ceremony bending down to a statue of Mary and desperately praying:  “Please, please, help.  Help me, and help us to make it.”

We were both deer in the headlights taking a blind leap of faith, and we were hardly the first couple to feel that way.

Fast forward twenty five years later.  We didn’t crash into the windshield, but we took some hits, and have emerged together relatively unscathed.  Understanding how we managed this feat is truly a complicated endeavor.  People (and I include myself) can’t get enough of finding secret formulas to making relationships succeed (Do these five things for a hot marital life!), but much of it is bullshit.  So if that’s the case, what wisdom can I pass along?  Well, it may not work for you, but that’s okay.  I think it kind of boils down to this:  Pray a lot, have sex a lot, and don’t be an asshole more than you can help it.  I know, it’s inspiring enough to bring tears to your eyes.  But seriously, you can agree on religion and money and kids and in-laws, and still end up not together, or worse, trapped in an empty shell.  Making marriage work is a mysterious mixture of faith, luck, and not throwing in the towel when you want to snap him or her in the face with the thing; preferably wet, so it stings.  It’s acceptance for who the other is, and being okay with what that is.  In the beginning, I found John to be rigid and demanding, and carped at him endlessly for being so judgmental.  He in turn found me to be financially careless and questioned my commitment to make the long haul without bolting (no doubt magnified by my proclivity for fleeing during disagreements).  We were living out our birth order roles of the bossy oldest and the irresponsible baby, but throwing in the towel was never an option.  Some days that may have been the only thing we did agree on.

I think it helps if partners have a longer memory for all the shining moments, and a shorter one for the dark times.   Practice having amnesia then.  It works, trust me, unless you reverse the two.

Here’s another reality.  There is no such thing as giving “50/50” in a relationship.  It’s more like 60/40, or even 80/20, and I’m not talking about just for a day.  The scales can be unbalanced for a looong time, and in our narcissistic culture that’s a hard concept to wrap selfish heads around.  The key is knowing, having faith, the burden will be shifted in the other direction at some point.  And if it doesn’t, there’s a choice to be made.  Have you noticed how often I’ve used the word faith here?  I’ve no doubt God has been with us all along, and will be to the end.  There can be no other explanation for overcoming some of the hurdles we encountered over the years, because we’re sure as hell not superheroes.  We are imperfect and vulnerable to the same frailties as everyone else.  And sometimes, for a host of ouchy reasons we already know, a person has to pull the plug and walk away because they must.  And that sucks.  And it’s hard. I would say to this, the same mantra about writing I have mocked in the past yet still know of its’ truth:

No love is ever wasted.

The proof is there, whether through beautiful children or painful lessons. I hope you believe this, and aren’t throwing a shoe at your computer.  Well, go ahead and throw the shoe if you need to, but steer clear of your valuables and the dog and the cat.

I am so excited for my son and future daughter-in-law and their new life together.  Weddings truly bestow hope on all who attend, and as they say, if you’re lucky enough to be part of an Irish one, you’re lucky enough.  You may be wondering if we’ll be doing any celebrating of our own in July.  The answer is yes.  Exactly what, I’m  not sure of yet, but we’ve talked in the past about renewing our vows.  Something quiet and simple.  It’d be nice to walk down even a makeshift aisle as a more fully developed person, a person who declares, “I choose you.  Again. With humble gratitude and not gnawing fear.”

Cheers and God’s peace to all you lovebirds.  May you enjoy a long and prosperous life together, and if you do make the walk down the proverbial aisle, may you not be afflicted with nausea.  Now how’s that for an Irish toast?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The cure for when life sucks

Hello, friends! Tonight I am digging in the back of our beer fridge, and what do I find but a Great Lakes Christmas Ale. Why it’s still there is a mystery, but it won’t be for long.  I am sipping it now, with the rim coated in cinnamon sugar. I know some of you just can’t get your head around beer mixed with sugar, and beer consumed alongside items such as cupcakes, and I tell you once again, IT WORKS. Especially when life sucks, and it kind of does, right now.
Yeah, sorry to report this won’t be a cheery post, so don’t say you weren’t forewarned. You should be cracking your own brew open now anyway, since if you’ve been following my posts, you know they’re not exactly sunshine-y.
You may need a refresher, though, as it’s been months since I’ve visited my abandoned blog, due to that pesky project called writing a novel.  Well, guess what?  Right now, that two and a half year project sucks.  I just want to listen to sad folksinger songs that nobody has ever heard of, drink stouts, and then get mad all over again because nobody knows who the songwriter is.  What the hell is wrong with people, I rail.  They make talentless, lip-synching fucks famous, and people with REAL PROMISE go unnoticed.  Like me, maybe?  So suggests a little voice.

Anyway.  At this particular juncture, my work sucks, because I’ve recently gotten feedback telling me it has no real direction, there doesn’t seem to be a point, and I should do X, Y , and Z.  Breathe deeply, I tell myself. No writing is wasted, I try to remember, and I want to wring the wrinkled neck of whoever thought of that son- of-a-bitching useless mantra.  Another deep breath.

The truth is, every good writer requires and uses constructive critique to improve their work. We in the writer’s world are told at every turn about its’ essentialness, and I believe  it to my core.  That being said, does it still sting like the wasp that attacked my son years ago, landing on every knuckle with vicious delight?  Absolutely.  Part of it is, of course, you become so immersed and attached to your story, the characters are like your babies. You envision yourself, instead of smiling politely, responding to your very well-meaning and most likely correct critic by shouting at them: What do you mean, you don’t UNDERSTAND why X, Y, or Z, would do THAT?  I’ve spent hundreds of fucking hours making it clear why. Apparently, as clear as mud.  What the fuck is wrong with you?  Let me guess, what are you, twenty five?  You don’t know SHIT!

So.  To preserve my thinning perseverance, I am stepping away, for a bit.  After I’ve received some more commentary from various valued comrades, I shall return.  And like a bulldog, I won’t let go until it’s right.  I guess that will be an accomplishment in itself, because do you know how unlike a bulldog I am?  It’s true.  I’m more like a dopey boxer-mix who chases their own tail because they don’t know any better, who forgets where they buried the damned bone.  I’m fighting against the tide here.

Aside from my pity party about the above, there’s other stuff making life suck.  There’s the ever present grey skies and rain, which is like living in Ireland, without the awesome pubs and people.  It is so utterly depressing, and to complain results in…nothing.  My husband hates whiners, and actually I do too, but I want my Michigan snow back. Where the hell did it go, anyway?  The grey is similar to the cement block that is weighing on us from another ongoing situation that, if not resolved soon, I fear will literally kill my partner.  My love, my children’s father, and I am powerless to stop its’ poison. This is how long- term stress works; it eats away like a parasite taking over the host. In the meantime, we just try to take it day by day, hoping it will soon be an unpleasant memory.

Have you cracked open that craft beer yet?

The key to dissolving the said pity party is perspective.  We all know this; it’s only in a thousand different Facebook memes. Remember?  The self-righteous ones that tell you to be grateful for overflowing laundry, because it means you have clothes?  Yeah, yeah, whatever, those are the ones I share when I’m in a good mood.  Which I am not, even though I know their truths. So here are my sobering face-slaps.

There’s my dear friend and neighbor, who is slowly dying from a rare type of lymphoma, and if there is anyone who deserves to live it’s this man. He is the closest thing to a saint on the planet, and he lives alone, and I wake up in a sweat worrying whether today is the day God is taking him, and nobody will know. So I call him and bring him cupcakes because he just turned sixty six, and by the grey in his face that matches our current sky, I don’t think he will see another birthday.

There is my sister, who must think about which nursing home to possibly place her husband, who suffers from Parkinson’s.  And if and when she does this, how to pay for it. An attorney has suggested a divorce, “on paper,” because if you have any assets at all, Medicare won’t pay for long term care.  How’s that for a choice?

Are you wondering about my cure for when life sucks?  Well, it may not work for you.  In fact, you might even break out into hives at the thought.  If that’s the case, it’s your problem, and I’m sorry for you.  But my balm right now, my sustenance, is this:  Avoid adults.  I’m dead serious.  I’ve decided I prefer the company of children anymore, and maybe I always have. They are incapable of bullshit, they don’t know or understand politics, and maybe most importantly, they make me laugh or cry, depending on the circumstance.

The last couple of weekends have been spent in the presence of four different young girls, each of them as unique and beautiful as the snowflakes I wish would reappear.  And I couldn’t get enough of them; of their sweet, innocent conversations and overwhelming politeness, their clear, youthful faces and most of all, their honesty.  In one instance, the girls are daughters of our friends, and we were skiing.  Afterward, I colored with them (YES! How I miss coloring!), and played tic-tac-toe, and Hangman, and there were belly laughs all around.  Oh, how I need this now, I thought.

And then there was a dinner this past weekend, which included people my husband works with.  Some of them brought their kids, two girls  who sat at the end of the table.  I asked John to switch seats with me so I could talk to them, because I always feel bad for the kids who get dragged to adult/parent events. I didn’t regret it either, because sure enough one of the spouses began bitching about their job (with kids!) and another was on about the joy (not) of working in a high school lunchroom, which included the power of granting detention.

Jesus Christ, I think.  Don’t. Get. Me. Started. On this subject, of Nazi-like adults loving to wield power over helpless kids.  This is where I check out, turn my chair, and start actively engaging the girls in conversation, and it was wonderful.  I pay more attention to eleven year old Ashley, because she doesn’t have an electronic device, and she is answers all my nosy questions with eagerness.  She tells me art is her favorite class, (big surprise), and her current task is drawing her “dream bedroom.”  I ask what that would entail, but she says it’s a brand new assignment and she still has to think about it.  I tell her I’m a writer, which is something I don’t openly admit, because to my ears it still sounds imposter-ish, but I know I will be safe in revealing it to her.  And I am right.  Her face brightens at this, and she tells me of a ‘personal narrative” she had recently completed.  We chat some more, and she notices her mother is not at her chair.  Her dad tells her that mom is outside to get some fresh air, that she’s not feeling well, and because she is eleven and a girl, she’s worried and asks to go see her.  She is clearly relieved when her mom is okay, and my throat closes up watching her.

Children are our hope, and our future.  We know this, logically, but we don’t give them the credit or the respect they deserve.  They are also central to the book I’m writing, and for this reason alone I will keep plugging through. I know that my strongest passages involve characters that are children, so it may mean I have to expand on this strength. Wish me luck, friends, that I can do them justice on the printed page.

And may the things that suck right now for you, every day be a little less sucky. Sometimes, life has to be measured by those kind of increments.

CHEERS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Letter to the Editor and blue bumper stickers

“We learned more in a three minute record baby, than we ever learned in school…”

-“Bobbie Jean,” by Bruce Springsteen

Good afternoon, friends. Today’s post is accompanied by Stone IPA, a beer out of San Diego. It’s tasty, but not as tasty as the next one I will have after this, which is Hop Burglar by Wicked Weed of Asheville, NC.  A shout-out to our beloved beer hound friends who gifted us after their road trip. Kinda going out of my Michigan zone today, but that’s okay. Beer is all good, as I’m fond of saying. 

Those of you who are on Facebook may have seen that I mentioned composing a letter to the editor yesterday, and to keep a look out for it in the local paper. The bad thing about submitting these kinds of letters is that there’s this pesky little drawback called editing. And in the hands of someone who is incompetent, one’s treasured words can be chopped up like hamburger. Trust me when I tell you that even though writers know this could happen, writers would also like to disembowel those who take such liberties. So I decided that along with some other commentary, I would include the letter in its’ entirety here. But first, a bit of backstory.

About seven years ago I wrote an essay about school awards night. I have revisited it a few times since and found it to be little more than a rambling eight page rant, but at the time of composing it I kept thinking, “Oh, this is good! This will show ordinary people what it’s like to sit through three hours of bullshit pomp and pageantry, watching the same Amanda and Zachary parade across the stage fifteen times, while the rest of us bimbos wonder what the &$@$ we’re doing here.” Re-reading the piece now I only want to edit and improve its’ message, because I’m much more removed from the emotions that held me hostage for ten years. I’ll try to weave in a little of what I was aiming for then, in this post. 

Some of you know of our family’s journey through reading the aforementioned essay, and from another one that’s in this blog’s archives. They both concern my experience as the parent of Danny: a wonderful, funny, loving kid who is cursed with learning disabilities. I originally wrote the awards essay not only as a means to vent my frustration, but to spread awareness to Mr. or Mrs. Joe Schmo about life in the D and F lane.  I might have accomplished that for a few people in my writing group, who were the first to lay eyes upon it, but even some of them were like, “huh?”  Writers tend to be a scholarly bunch (except for moi), and didn’t quite know what to make of my spin on an institution all of them aced through.

Then again when I think back, my husband wasn’t too impressed either. I remember he read it, and scrunching his beautiful blue eyes he said, “Well. It’s a bit…harsh.” I’m pretty sure I got mad and said something like, well this is MY story, this is our family’s saga, and it isn’t all sugar and spice. And then I probably stalked off to re-write. Dear God, it was anything but sugar and spice. A lot of the time, life sucked. 

The truth was I was angry, though time and distance have softened the edges.

In any case Danny graduated, and after battling in the bullpen I was burned out. I didn’t want the soapbox anymore, and I backed off the constant reading and research about school issues. I quit a job with the local intermediate school district (which I took to ostensibly help parents who might face what I had), partially because I felt like a fraud. I was becoming part of a machine that was helping to mold kids into what the school deemed as “ready”, rather than getting schools to meet kids where they were. I decided I would start writing instead. 

So the things that used to dig at me about how ignorant the public is regarding special education, about teachers who need to retire, and about what makes a good student or a successful-in-life student, I usually let go now. And then I read the lovely little newspaper article that, while perfectly nice if a bit boring, struck my dormant nerve. Why? It’s truly hard to explain if you haven’t done the walk in my moccasin deal. But I can tell you it’s the same prickly nerve that made me want to rear end every single minivan sporting a “I’m a proud parent of an honor student!” bumper sticker. I guess if you have one you’re safe from me, because I don’t see them where I live anymore.  

Anyway, I digress. A short synopsis: the newspaper story featured a senior who is the sixth person in his family to be crowned valedictorian in his class. Yes, that’s it in a nutshell. Nothing draconian or sinister here,  and so what’s wrong with giving some press to a hard working young man and his Einsteinian clan? Well, in theory, nothing, except that I’m not interested. And that’s the problem in our culture. We don’t see a problem with three hours of homework a night; we eat these accolades up like they’re candy, and frame them and caress them like lovers, and if we are PARENTS of the recipients? What a huge validation of all our efforts! Talk about hitting the Facebook motherlode! The stroking continues on and on, and nobody questions why it’s such a great feat to become an expert at filling in test circles if it means getting into one’s college of choice. 

Now, before you get your panties in a bundle, I know there’s more to a successful student than that. You may also wrongly assume I criticize those who post updates of their kids. Not so. If you’re obnoxious and prone to excessive bragging of any kind you’re not my friend, either on Facebook or otherwise. I love to see kids’ activities and their art, especially. We are all proud of our children and all they do, and rightly so. I am no exception. But it is long past time that we give a deep look into our priorities, and what we consider praiseworthy, and how to balance all of this with a serious dose of humility. And of course somewhere in there, shine a little light on the troopers who aren’t getting an audience, who nobody interviews because there’s nothing special to report.  Well, I know better, so anything goes. Maybe those nonexistent interviews will be ones I make happen.

Without further adieu, here is my letter:

Editor, 

I had a few reactions to the May 16 article in the HP, regarding Connor Reed being the sixth member of his family to become valedictorian. First of all, congratulations to him. He sounds like a good kid with a good family and a bright future ahead. Bravo. That being said, how does something like this make the paper and deemed newsworthy? Certainly the kudos should be acknowledged among family and friends, but what is the point of the community paper’s front page? To show the readers brainy people applied “gentle pressure” to brainy kids, who then graduated at the top of their class? To be brutally honest, I. Don’t . Care. 

Here’s one rub: for every kid that’s as seemingly well-adjusted as this one, there’s another ready to put a rope around his neck for fear of failure in the factories we call schools now. Check out the depression, anxiety and suicide rates for teens if you’re skeptical. So I don’t understand why we continue to glorify and trumpet academic accomplishments that in the end mean…what? Persistence and hard work pay off? No doubt about it, they do. But I am sincerely waiting for the news articles featuring teens who are persistently driving their grandparents to the doctor, or grocery shopping, or working a job to help their family, all while still facing three hours of NON advanced placement homework every night. Or babysitting siblings so a parent can attend night classes, or graduating themselves while in the throes of chemotherapy or another life threatening disease. How about this kicker? A kid who graduates in spite of learning disabilities or a horrific home life? You likely won’t hear about them because they are quietly going about their lives unrecognized, and wouldn’t have it any other way. They and their parents don’t want the participation medal, believe me. They are too busy with their heads down just getting through.

 Yeah, my son was one of those kids teaches dreaded. Unorganized, inattentive, “doesn’t try hard enough.” And before you accuse me of sour grapes, I will say this: I was too preoccupied, fighting like a tiger to see him graduate, than to worry about jealousy or GPA’s. Imagine that! Those days are thankfully over, but it still upsets me to think of the hordes of bright kids who get lost without that parental support. You know, the ones who aren’t trying hard enough? Our son, a smart, sweet guy, would’ve been squashed flat in the system, were it not for us and a select few dedicated staff. I don’t say this so I can get my pat on the back or day in the sun; I say it for the thousands who never will.

You want to talk about unsung heroes, interview the guidance counselors and students who accomplish things amidst adversity. Interview teachers who, rather than making jokey hints to kids about whether they can keep the family valedictorian legacy going, lay awake at night wondering how to make a calculus lesson work for students who will never, ever use it. Personally, those are the stories I want to read about. 

+the end. 

And that, my friends, is that. I really could write a book about what we’ve been through, what I’ve observed over the years. Maybe when this current novel-in-the-making is over I’ll consider it. I don’t know. A big part of me wants to show other people’s stories, so time will tell. Until next time, cheers. And an extra cheers to you if your kid gets all the bells and whistles in school. Just don’t be calling and trying to make a big splash at the Herald Palladium, or if I meet up with you in one of those gross high school bathrooms I might have to give you a swirly. 

 

 

 

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My Own Worst Enemy

…”I’m the sound of money washing down the drain,

I’m the pack of lies, baby, that keeps you sane,

I am your one true love that sleeps with someone else,

I am your Nemesis,

Baby I’m life, sweet life, itself…”

….Nemesis, by David Gray

Good afternoon, friends. Today’s post is accompanied by a delicious brew called “Michigan Stout,” put out by the delicious brewery Tapistry. Every ingredient has been culled from Michigan in some form, a concept you foodies out there go orgasmic for. Me, I don’t really care if the vine the hops come from is from Alaska as long as it tastes good. But I guess the Michigan ingredient thing IS kinda cool, and the bottle itself is way cool. Let me assure you this stout is very, very good, and it’s also fortunate that I don’t think twice about drinking something that looks like motor oil ( thanks for that description, Kristin K.). Plus, it’s a bomber! And I’m alone! Which means I can drink twenty two ounces all to myself. I know what you’re thinking. Uh-oh…drinking alone, isn’t that a warning sign? Well, I’d share if you were here with me. Which you kind of are, if you’re reading this. And anyway, I’m having….one of those days.

The lyrics above are from one of my favorite songs and songwriters, David Gray. And when I went for my daily trek with my pain-in-the-ass dog, I kept listening, because it hit so close to home. How many different ways do you feel overwhelmed by your every effort? More importantly, because of what you tell yourself?

This post is really dedicated to we “creative types”, but honestly, it doesn’t matter. I think every one of us has been gripped by the demons of self-doubt at one time or another. Well, except for my husband. How I have envied him for his lack of second guessing and his seemingly effortless confidence in his abilities and decisions. He just charges forward and doesn’t look back, and yet he is the least arrogant person I know. That, my friends, must be a gift from above, because I am sure the forces that fill one’s mind with uncertainty are from below.

So. I’m sort of in the throes of a head-banging thing with my writing. Most of you know I have embarked on a novel, and everyone close to me is very supportive. “That’s so great! You’re so talented! Good for you for going for it!” All comments appreciated and duly noted. But in the meantime, I’ve been hacking away at this monster (I’m calling it that today), for over a year. I’m more than halfway through a first draft, but have revised it a million different ways already, which you’re not supposed to do. You are advised by writing pros to just write, write, write, and get to the end. Then, go back and revise. Well, I can’t. I must have enough OCD in me that if something is off to me, I’m like a shark with a piece of a surfer in its mouth. I won’t let it go. So it’s back to my notebook and my computer to delete and move and re-do and obsess over scenes, ad-nauseum. And I feel such a lack of progress as a result.

This isn’t atypical, mind you. I belong to enough writer groups to know this is par for the course, and so is what I am feeling right now. Which is, namely, thinking I’m f$&$ing crazy for thinking I can do this. That spending hours sweating over paragraphs and dialogue is the most colossal waste of time known to Man, while wondering who in the f%#k is EVER going to read this other than my four friends and family, let alone find an agent, a publisher, a way to market it, etc. The negativity catapults if I find myself blocked, too. I start thinking, “you can’t do this because you’re too stupid. Only SMART people can put plots together that are engaging best sellers. You can’t even remember what you had for breakfast today, let alone get characters and story lines straight. You’re an imposter and an idiot all in one.”

I know, boo-hoo. Writers and artists in general are notorious for their insecurity, their narcissistic whining, weirdness, and inability to produce genius works without being soused or high, or heartbroken. Like all stereotypes, there is probably a grain of truth in there somewhere. I keep thinking I’m like the guy on TV…” I don’t ALWAYS drink when I write, but when I do, it’s…craft beer.” Now, c’mon. Don’t get all worried. If I drank whenever I wrote, I’d be half in the bag by ten AM. And back in bed.

I don’t know. I think the appeal of substances lies in their ability to kick out inhibitions and let inspiration in. Because artists are desperate for inspiration, wherever we can find it. And we are desperate to beat down the beast known as Resistance. Yes, there is a term for the self-induced head-banging I described above. Through one of my writer’s groups I discovered the author Steven Pressman, who wrote a book called, “The War of Art.” It’s a quick read, a fascinating book and I highly recommend it. Not just for artists, but for anyone who struggles with believing in themselves and their endeavors. So he coined the term,”Resistance,” as an evil force that has the strength to bury us, if we let it.  It is “the enemy within,” whose aim is to prevent us from doing our work. He doesn’t call it satanic, but he comes close.

In the book, the author refers to Hitler. Did you know that he wanted to be an artist? Neither  did I. He apparently had an inheritance and moved to Vienna, applying to the Academy of Fine Arts and went…nowhere. Pressman says, “Resistance beat him. It was easier to start World War two, than it was for him to face a blank canvas.”

Wow, I think. That must be some powerful thing, I think. And it is.

Resistance comes in the form of believing I am delusional for this undertaking, that I should just chuck this whole damned manuscript and go bartend and learn how to pole dance or something.  It comes in the form of dismissing any accolades, such as getting published in an anthology, and dismissing any positive reinforcements. In my defense, I will say this much: it’s not in my makeup to enjoy attention or praise, and I fear I have passed this down to my adorable sons. They don’t care for it, either. Perhaps there is a nirvana where humility meets assertiveness. Let us hope.

In any case I can’t let this Resistance force consume me, and if you have similar issues, you shouldn’t either. So I will use one of my weapons against this, which is prayer, to soldier on. I also believe in the power of my current story more than anything I’ve ever done, even as I get an ache from the head bang. I truly think it’s bigger than any of my little petty complaints, because its coming from a source that I can’t comprehend. And so maybe this belief will be my salvation. For I sit down day after day and not only am I trying to tune out Resistance, but the constant distractions of animals, Facebook and email. The good news is I have at least gotten myself disciplined to looking at electronic items twice a day only, so that’s a start.

I am at the end of my pint now,  and so it signals the end of my post. I ask for your prayers, if that’s your thing, to give me strength to continue on this journey. And if not, send some good karma my way.  May your heart be bigger than the thoughts that threaten to defeat you, my friends. A healthy bomber is a hell of a good defense, by the way.

Cheers!

 

 

 

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Jury Duty Did Not Make Me A Better Human

Tonight’s brew is Snow Roller by Magic Hat, a seemingly apt choice as we finally have snow on the ground. The bottle describes it as a hoppy brown ale, but it’s more like watery, not-much-hop brown ale. No matter. We had, ahem, QUITE the beer selection from Christmas, and this was one of the leftovers. So drink I must; you know, to make room in the beer fridge for the good stuff. Though I sniff my nose at the brew now, I probably would’ve gulped it like gatorade yesterday and the day before. In the morning, yet. No, I wasn’t at Chuck E. Cheese’s, or an equally annoying electronic- filled establishment that requires mind numbing beverages in order to function. I was in our local courthouse, having been summoned for jury duty.

I made the usual harrumphs about interruptions in time, and how is it this is my third time when others have never done it, but on the whole, I didn’t mind. Of course, that was before I woke up to the worst weather of the year and navigated treacherous roadways in whiteouts for forty five minutes. You could say I minded then. Of course I wasn’t alone in the hardship, as eighty other disgruntled citizens were also called and led to a room to wait. To wait and watch two short videos which I already have zero recall as to their content, other than jurors should dress appropriately. We were told to be at the courthouse by 7:45, and eighty people without cell phones sat in the room until 930. I guess the good thing about the rule is people were almost forced to talk to their neighbor, if their neighbor wasn’t too annoyed by not having a phone.

Within minutes my neighbor Karen made no bones about the fact she wasn’t comfortable being a juror. “Who am I to judge?” she said to me.

I nodded. “I know what you mean.”

“People judge unfairly all the time. They judge that I have two unmarried daughters with children, one who lives with us, but what they don’t know is I had another daughter who died in a car accident and a few years ago our house burned down. And I was a victim of verbal abuse by my boss for years, until I walked away. She was a horrible, horrible person. Always criticizing, judging. I feel like we’ve been here for hours, what time is it? Oh, I hate not having my phone.”

I swear to God I am not making this up. People tell me stuff and ramble in a way I’m certain would go unsaid to other, maybe brighter looking people. So at first I wasn’t sure if she was being truthful, but after sitting there for an hour and a half, I think she was. I kind of stopped talking to her after she was going on to another neighbor about buying two ipads for her four year old granddaughters and how all the hundreds of apps had made them “sooooo smart.” Yet in the next breath she complained how at night one of them is up every two hours and she doesn’t know why she has so much trouble sleeping. Ugh.

At 9:30 Karen and I were called to the courtroom, along with forty others. The rest were meant to sit in that original room, and watch the procedures on video. They wouldn’t be released until fourteen jurors were selected, but the clerk assured them they were the lucky ones because she had coffee and they could chew gum. She was right. Because after three hours on a rock hard bench in the courtroom I was chewing gum, and I didn’t care who saw me, and I wanted her coffee.

Let me say I love my country and I have respect for our judicial system. I think most of the time, it works. But the “voir dire” (jury selection) ordeal is enough to make a sane person want to drink watery, not hoppy beer at ten thirty in the morning. It is the most eye-rollingly repetitive experience I’ve had in forever, and I’m not sure how I forgot that fact the first two times. Part of it was because this go around there were two defendants, each with their own lawyer. So the prosecuting attorney along with the other two asked the SAME questions over and over and over of every prospective juror.

“How would you rate our justice system?” 

“Do you have problems with race?” 

“Can you put bias aside easily?”

“Ever been a victim of a violent crime or someone close to you been a victim?”

And from the judge: “Do you have the ability to understand possession? For example, you have a pen. If you put your pen in the car, and you go back inside, do you understand that the pen is still in your possession, and that you have a right to assert control over that pen?” Although nobody admitted it because nobody wanted to hear him repeat the example for the umpteenth time, the “right to assert control” phrase tripped up everyone. (How do I control it if it’s in my car?) So this went on and on, with the worst part the judge repeating the same damned questions the attorneys had already asked individually, back to them as a group. “Is there ANYONE who sees themselves as being unable to render decisions based on facts?” As if we are all four years old and can’t quite grasp the meaning the first eighteen times around.

Naturally there were some who answered in a way they knew would get them booted. After about a half hour my new friend Karen was called. When asked if there was any reason she would not be able to be a juror, she said:

“Well, actually I know I would tell my husband about it. I tell him everything.”

Judge: (peeved) “Do you mean to say you could not keep the trial’s proceedings to yourself, knowing you could talk away the minute it’s over?”

“I’m sorry, I’m just being honest. I know I would talk to him.”

She was thanked and excused. So was another guy, clearly irate, who was called after me. When asked how he rated the system he said: “Well, if you would’ve asked me at eight o’clock, I would have said a seven, but now that it’s 1:30 I’m giving it a three.” He shook his head. “I get it, man. Everyone wants someone sympathetic to their client, but this is ridiculous.” Out he went. I had to hand it to him; he only said what everyone was thinking. We were all starving and getting crankier by the minute. And I get it too. I get the attempt to weed out the bigots, the wild cards and the dim bulbs as necessary. I just wish it wasn’t so excruciating to arrive there. In the end though, I guess it all worked, because our panel really was a good cross section of society. Our group consisted of a college student, security guard, farmer, mechanic, dietician, two business owners, two pastors, a male nurse, a waitress, a Whirlpool executive, one guy whose job I didn’t catch, and me. Three women, eleven men, one black and the rest white, and here’s the kicker: nobody managed to grate on my impatient self. Usually there’s one clown or blowhard making everyone cringe, but not in this crew. And it was a good thing, because there were loads of down time in which to become better acquainted.

THAT is what grated more than anything: the inefficiency with time was astounding. The incessant lecturing about no discussing the trial and reminders about protocol drove me nuts. I wasn’t alone with this, either. The male nurse whose name was Jeremiah had a second calling as a performer, because he could imitate all the players in the courtroom dead-on. “Is there ANYONE who doesn’t understand that if you have a pen and you leave it in your car…” He made us laugh, in particular one time as we were shuffled back to the room again for at least forty minutes. The bailiff had to come in and tell us to be quiet, and one of the pastors was repentant. “We apologize, sir,” he said solemnly. And I thought, well, I’m not sorry. What else do you expect us to do, forbidden as we were to not discuss anything? I was also less than thrilled with all the formality and stuffiness and the way the bailiff jumped like a command dog at every breath the judge took. I don’t know what it is about this that bugged me so, because again I do understand the need for order. I guess I just have an inherent distaste for situations in which it must be made abundantly clear who is in power, and who is not, and being reminded every two seconds since most of us don’t have a bajillion years of law instruction, as such we need to be schooled.

So back to the bailiff, who did manage to slightly irritate me. He was friendly and did his best to meet our needs, providing water and coffee at regular intervals and answered our questions. No qualms there. I decided his job was to basically herd us like cats and be a courtroom servant  in any capacity, and he did this well. But when I came back from a lunch break the first day, as he was escorting me to through all the locked doors he kept turning around.

“I know you.” ( Not, do I know you?) “I’ve seen you somewhere. I used to referee high school wrestling, is that it?”

“Hmm. No, don’t think so.”

He went on to list a bunch of other possibilities, all denied, and he persisted until we got to the room. By this time I wanted to shout, “I DON’T KNOW YOU, and you have all the mannerisms of a tight ass ex-military and ex -cop that you’ve said you were, that would make me not WANT to particularly know you.”

The interrogation went on to the next day even, again as were on the escort trail, and this was the source of my ire. I felt like a freaking suspect whom he was sure was lying somehow.

“I was trying to think last night of how I know you.”

Really, dude? Please let that just be conversation. I shook my head and repeated I wasn’t from the area.

“Huh.”

He unlocked the door to the dungeon and went to herd more cats. 

On the second day of the trial, closing statements were made around five o’clock and the  judge informed us sandwiches would be delivered as we deliberated. Although everyone was tired, nobody wanted to leave while the evidence was still fresh in our minds.

And we could finally talk, and do what we were there for. 

While the cases were fairly open and shut, I think we did an excellent job pulling it apart and analyzing the facts. Exhausted, everyone still understood our decisions would essentially decide the direction of others’ lives, thus deserving of careful examination. We got hung up on one charge (possession!) and had to send the judge a note for clarification, and at ten p.m we were ready with five guilty verdicts and one not guilty. 

Our nurse Jeremiah read the counts out loud, and afterward we were ready to pounce at the exit door. The judge however, was not so eager. He pontificated about the merits of jury duty and produced a battered newspaper column.

“Whenever trials end, I always reflect upon the words of Anna Quindlan, who wrote a wonderful article on how jury duty made her a better human.”

Now, I’m an admirer of Quindlan, but at this point I am screaming at him in my head:

“It is ten fifteen. I am NOT a better human because right now I want to throw darts at you because you are still talking and we want to go home. DO not read that column in its entirety or I’ll be the one in the jail cell. Simply THANK US and send us on our way. “

He paraphrased, thanks be to God. The bailiff led us to the parking lot for one last time, probably still scratching his head about how he knew me, and we bid each other goodbye. We expressed thankfulness for the chance to get to know one another, and this was genuine. We’d overlooked the inconvenience, fought fatigue and horrendous weather, the pettiness of certain processes, spouses and kids and animals at home and jobs that needed our attention, to zero in on the importance of the task at hand. 

So maybe I was a LITTLE bit more human after all. 

Cheers, friends. And if you get called for jury duty, may you be blessed with a circle of good humans who will make you forget about craving watery, not hoppy beer at ten thirty in the morning. 

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My brother’s keeper

If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain

If I can ease one life the aching 

Or cool one’s pain

Or help one fainting robin

Unto his nest again

I shall not live in vain

-Emily Dickinson

Today’s post is accompanied by Short’s autumn ale and this is my last one out of a six pack. (And no, I didn’t buy it yesterday). However it is only two in the afternoon…which could be worrisome under normal circumstances. Suffice it to say what’s happening now isn’t normal, if death ever is. And over my pint I’m wondering if I failed to live out the directives of one of my favorite poems, the one listed above.  I’m feeling that I failed to not only stop a heart from breaking, but by my lack of action a heart stopped beating altogether. 

That being said, I really don’t want this post to be about poor me. Let me tell you about my brother David.

He was born David Lindsey Hasenfang on September 2nd, and had just turned fifty six when he shot himself in the head at his home. His story is sad from beginning to end, but I guess I think if it’s written down it will somehow matter more and be less tragic.

He was a chubby, blonde haired and blue eyed toddler when his father was killed in a train accident; and my sister wonders often how their lives might have turned out had this never happened. Hard to know, of course. I picture him, probably not even out of diapers and already adrift in a sea of depression he’d never fully pull out from, and I think.

I think, did you ever even stand a chance? 

His every whim was indulged from the get-go. No doubt, due to a mixture of my mother’s distracted depression and two adoring sets of grandparents eager to fill the gap of a missing father. Then my mother met my father, whom he probably did become attached to, and who promptly left after fleecing everyone in his wake. By the time he had a second stepfather he was nearing adolescence, and the brew of emerging hormones and lifelong defiance with authority became the perfect storm. Our German stepdad at age thirty-something knew zilch about child raising, but what he did know was that this smart-mouth upstart was going to show him respect. And once my parents discovered marijuana pots in his room, there were knock down, drag out fistfights that drove me to my room to hide. 

When he turned twenty one David received a sum of money set aside from his deceased father, and sometime after that he bought a truck and a dog. He was California bound. He worked for a landscaping company out there and had a genuine flair for it, and I wasn’t surprised. When he was in eighth grade the only bright spot in his troubled academic history cast this light: an art teacher told him he had talent and he should direct his career in that route. He didn’t finish high school, let alone pursue art in college, but I think his gifts came through when he worked with his plants and flowers.

He loved it in Cali, though the free wheeling drug culture was not a good scene for him. He admitted this to me much later.  He became mired in one incident after another, calling my sisters and then my mom for money. At some point my mom flew out there and I don’t even know what happened, but she was a wreck upon coming home. The “incidents”  were never his fault, naturally. In between countless brushes with the law was the ever present threat of doing himself in, which distressed everyone to no end. At some point he came home to Michigan and lived with my parents for quite awhile, obtaining factory work mostly.

When I had my firstborn, he was very excited. I think part of it was due to the fact that at barely twenty, he had become involved with a somewhat older woman. She was separated and had two kids and in no time was pregnant with his. She didn’t want him or the baby and opted for adoption. I remember this being a very painful decision, as he weighed how to raise a baby when he himself was unstable in almost every conceivable way. Many tears were shed by him and my mother, and I know he waited the rest of his life for a knock on the door that never came. 

So with the arrival of a nephew I was hopeful. Hopeful he could at last establish a bond and receive the unconditional love only children and pets can give. And for awhile he did, until he couldn’t. When Sean was a toddler I suggested they go fishing, which my brother loved. And when he dropped Sean off he was livid. “Why did you ever think I could do this? He wouldn’t shut up and sit still, and drove me nuts. I hate kids!” He was shaking with the effort to control himself and stalked off in a rage. 

That was when I knew I couldn’t trust him not to become unhinged around my children. And I had to put them first, had to protect them. It was probably around this time for various reasons, he became less and less stable. He was fired from a care taking job at an estate, and that was one of the last legitimate positions he had. Somehow, probably with my parent’s help, he bought a house and settled not far from them or me. He also met a sweet young woman and got married, and we thought, “Oh…this is it! This is the turning pont.” Nice as she was, she was also very ill with kidney disease, which was there before the marriage. In between doting on her he’d explode, and she was understandably too fragile to withstand his unpredictable outbursts. They divorced, and this was probably the earliest beginning of the end. At some stage he began growing pot again as a soure of income, and we would only see each other sporadically. He hated holidays and special occasions and refused to participate in family functions, and this hurt. Later I understood it was because he was embarrassed to be surrounded by “successful” people with growing families, but at the time it simply annoyed me. 

After my mom died, it seemed as though he was determined to reverse the pain he’d caused them over the years by helping my dad. And help him he did, from mowing, weeding, raking, shoveling snow, to taking him for groceries, to just being company. They became friends, and I was so grateful for both of them. 

Then my dad passed.

His downward spiral continued but the pattern was in fits and starts. He received a good chunk of inheritance money and my sister intoned, “spend it wisely.” But we should’ve known better. How could a decent amount of cash combined with his erratic, bipolar behavior, not be a disaster waiting to happen? He refused to apply for Obamacare because he was certain the Feds would come after him for years of not paying taxes, so he paid God only knows how much out of pocket for his dozens of meds. So the money trickled away, taking with it what little reasoning and hope he had.

I met with him a few weeks before he died and we went for a nice walk with his dog Rocky, a big and beautiful lab-pit mix. His animals were the one constant throughout his life, for all the usual reasons: their devotion, companionship, unending love, and unwavering acceptance. David hid from his family and most of society because in his moments of clarity he was ashamed of  who and what he was. But really. What was that, other than a flawed human like any one of us? For every side of him that was selfish, hurtful, volatile, irresponsible, reckless and law breaking, there was another side that was caring, loyal, artistic, ferociously funny, sentimental, and occasionally considerate. It’s just that, like Darth Vader, the dark side took over much of the time. And that scared and frustrated me, so I’d back off. Maintaining any relationship with him meant risking your own mental health, and that’s a pretty high price to pay. 

And yet. The predictable should and could-haves circle my brain like the bees hovering over the hummingbird feeder on my deck. Sucking the life out of me with the accusation that I didn’t do enough. I say this because when on that hike, he hinted in a very roundabout way he should’ve received more of the estate for his care of our dad. And I know enough to know that he targeted me, not only because he felt closer to me but because he knew I was the one more likely to cave. To say, “Oh, you’re right. What do you need?”

Only this time, I didn’t. I offered help, but it wasn’t what the kind he wanted. I was determined to break the cycle of enabling, not understanding this wasn’t possible with a man as sick as he was. He was desperate, and though logic dictates if he didn’t follow through last Monday it would have been a different day, it’s a very hollow assurance right now. I must work through the voices that mock me now, who call me a fake and a hypocrite. What kind of person prides herself on being compassionate, and writes blogs about being a brother’s keeper to a homeless man, is oblivious to her own brother’s  agony? What kind of person appoints herself the judge and jury of her brother’s mistakes (spending thousands on a steel walled garage)? I will tell you: a newly humbled person. The juxtaposition of this shiny new structure with an American flag waving, (from a flagpole kit given by my parents), next to the peeling shack he lived in, was painful to view. 

The person in question didn’t become unglued at the scene of the crime. I paid a cleaning crew to come and take the bed away and do what they do. No, it was the piles of unwashed laundry and unpaid bills that did me in. I could see exactly when he went down the hole and didn’t come out. I keep seeing his mail, which went from opened in June to stacks in September, and I think it wouldn’t have killed you to have paid this for a few months, until something could be worked out. But, no. Miss psychology major had a lesson to teach. A lesson she wrongly and  arrogantly assumed could penetrate fifty six years of illness and drug abuse. 

Of course I know there would always be another four hundred to pay, or more. And for how long? My brain knows that. The guilt that threatens to envelop me is being held at bay by the shields of my loved ones and the the Holy Spirit. There is Grace everywhere I turn; from my brother’s neighbors who have taken in his pets with great love, to the support of my sisters, to my special friend who stood at the bedroom doorway and asked God to “bring David to a place of peace and light.” 

So I take immense comfort from all these things, and I will heal as I do my best to honor what is left to do without bitterness. I truly view it as my cross to bear and what I owe to my parents, and to David. Maybe I can do for him now what I was too weak or cowardly to do when he was alive. 

And I hope that will be enough. 

I know this post is hardly a ray of sunshine, but I had to get this story out there. And anyway, if you happen to see a chocolate lab pit dog bounding out on East Road in southwestern Michigan, you will see all the love and light you can stand. David rescued him, and I know Rocky did the same, if only for a brief period of time. One of the last things my brother wrote was on a sticky note he attached to the door to his house, to reassure the police: “Dog Rocky is very friendly.”

Cheers and peace to you, my friends. 

 

 

 

 

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