Unemployed Again

Unemployed Again

Monday, October 26, 2009

Secrets, Lies, and Family Ties

I didn’t know I had a brother until I was thirteen years old.

It wasn’t like my brother was some alien kin who had been shipped off to adoptive parents for financial or other reasons; some stranger that I never knew. I grew up with my brother. I had lived with him in the same house until I was 6, which, at the age of 13, was about half of my life. And when my mother remarried and we no longer shared a home with him, he was still my constant companion.

They just lied about his identity.

As a child, it never occurred to me that my parents would ever lie to me. I knew they had their surreptitious adult whispers; I knew they did things in the bedroom that they didn’t want me to know about, and they spoke in French sometimes, when they needed a private conversation. But it never crossed my mind that what they DID tell me wasn’t the absolute truth.

I remember the first time that the thought of parents ever being deceptive even entered my mind. I was about 10 years old, and it was all over the news that two children had died after eating their Halloween candy. A posse of interrogators canvassed the surrounding neighborhood, confiscating uneaten confections from people’s homes, and cross examining anyone who might have come into contact with the deceased children. But as it turned out, it was the children’s own parents who had slipped the arsenic lased chocolates in their children’s plastic Jack-o’-Lantern that Halloween night. Now, that’s spooky.

This news story horrified me, as it was long before the Susan Smiths of our world. Today we are used to hearing stories of parents drowning, stabbing and slashing their own children with alarming regularity; but the thought parents hurting their own children back then was almost unthinkable. I couldn’t stop thinking about these parents, who intentionally poisoned their children’s bag of candy. I stared at my own candy and down the hall to my parents closed bedroom door, with my first suspicious thought. For the first time, I wondered if my parents were really who they said they were.

As it turns out, they weren’t. I was poisoned just like those children that fateful Halloween; the only difference was the poison they fed me wasn’t arsenic, it was a toxic lie. They told me my entire life that my brother was my Uncle. They told me that he was my mother’s half brother, and the biological son of my grandmother and the young Polish stud she had married, 20 years her junior.

George was only three years older than me, so as children we played together constantly, and as we grew older became friends. He would often tease my sister and me by slamming our Italian heritage, as our biological father was Sicilian. And we would slam his Polish heritage in return; all in good fun, of course. We teased each other relentlessly; we were all very much alike. George and I could pull funny faces that looked identical.

I had never met my biological father, Tony. He had left my mother while I was still in the uterus. I didn’t really know why he had abandoned our family, and I had only seen one grainy black and white picture of him, which my step-father glued at the end of a very long tube; so the only way I could see it was in the distance.

In my mind, Tony was almost a mythical figure; a swarthy romantic, living somewhere in Italy; perhaps on a boat. When I was a child, I was told my father was a sailor. Although I later found out that he just owned a motorboat which he enjoyed taking out on the lake, in my mind he was always a salty mariner, sailing alone somewhere in the Mediterranean; his vessel creaking from the muscle of the Atlantic, his hands and face weathered from the elements, his eye keen on the horizon. It wasn’t so much that he had abandoned me, I decided, but rather it was his intense wander lust which led him away from me. His heart was set on a perpetual adventure; he had a passion for solitude, exploration, and living with the fury of nature.

Although I had never met my father, I had always longed for him. My feisty Italian behavior was pleading for a kindred spirit; and even more so, it begged for the source. I could feel him inside every cell in my body; I always knew he was a part of me; and I ached to gaze into his eyes where I knew I would see my own eyes staring back at me. There was always a hole where I knew he should be.

I was determined that one day I would find him.

When I would ask my mother of his possible whereabouts, I would get cautious or flippant replies; or sometimes a vague answer. “I’m sure he’s somewhere in Italy, darling,” she would say. But somehow I didn’t believe he was. It wasn’t that I thought my mother was lying; I thought she just didn’t know.

But I was like a little detective, and I was intent on figuring it out.

I was born in Chicago, and I had heard all of my life how it came to be we lived in California. They would recount endless stories of how we got here, and everything which led up to us eventually making the trek west permanently. My grandmother would tell me stories how she wouldn’t do anything back then unless it was a step toward going west. “Will buying these shoes get me to California? This is what I would ask myself. And if they didn’t, then I wouldn’t buy them,” she’d tell me. My father, Tony, had also apparently waxed poetic about the Golden State; and he had planned on moving out with us, before he left our family forever. So it occurred to me that he might have moved to California, after all.

I had always searched for him. There was no Internet back then of course, nor had I any money to hire a Private Detective. So instead, wherever we’d travel in California, I would find a phone book and scan the contents for my Italian surname. When my parents took us to Disneyland, I scurried away with the hotel phone book, wondering if Los Angeles might have been my father’s ultimate destination. If we were in Monterey County, or Mendocino County, I would always find a way to sneak to a phone booth, where the telephone books hung on chains, waiting for my perusal. But book after book after book, I never found my surname in any of them. At some point, I had almost given up on ever finding my father; and looking in phone books became more of a compulsion than anything else.

One afternoon my parents took me to Mill Valley, to their friend Fritz’ house.

My parents were drinking and playing music downstairs, and I was amusing myself, wandering around the house and gardens. I came across a phone book in the hallway, and half heartedly opened it. I had never looked in a Marin County phone book before, so I knew I couldn’t pass it by. I flipped to the “S’s” as I always did, and scanned the contents for my surname. But this time, I had to blink twice to believe what I was actually seeing. There it was. The sight I had dreamed of my entire life; a half a page listing of nothing but my somewhat rare Italian last name.

I skimmed through the first names quickly, looking for the name Tony, but I couldn’t find it. I almost gave up; after all, it wasn’t inconceivable that this list of people were not my relatives, even if we had the same name. But suddenly I spotted the name Mike, and then the name Renato. I swallowed hard, as I knew that those were the names of my uncles; my father’s brothers. That couldn’t be a coincidence, I thought. I felt dizzy.

I looked down the hallway to make certain that Fritz and my parents were occupied and I could still hear them laughing downstairs. The coast was clear. I picked up the receiver from the phone and slowly dialed the number that was next to the name Mike. I will never forget how loud the ringing was in my ear; it was as if time was standing still. “Hello?” Someone had answered. It was the voice of an adult male, and he had a thick Italian accent.

“Hello. My name is Cathy. And I believe I might be your niece. My father is Tony?”

I heard a “click” on the other end of the line. I could hardly believe my ears. I yelled out “Hello? Hello?” several more times, but the phone had gone dead. He had hung up on me.

Undeterred but angry, I scanned the names again. Maybe my father wanted the fact that he had a family to remain a secret; maybe his brother knew he never wanted to be found. But as I pondered this, I saw it, under the “A’s.” Antonio. Of course. My father was listed as Antonio.

My heart began to thump loudly, and I felt a strange tingling sensation go up my neck and toward my face like slowly burning lava. I knew it was him. But I was frozen. I couldn’t make the call; I was too scared, especially after the way my Uncle had just treated me. So instead, I found a pencil and paper, and jotted the number down. It was a long drive home from Mill Valley that evening; as I never revealed to my mother or my step-father that I had found my biological father at last. But I held a very special secret, on a little scrap of paper in my pocket, and I checked to make certain it was still there at least a dozen times.

It wasn’t until the next day that I revved up enough courage to make the phone call. I sat for at least an hour on the floor, the phone between my legs, and that little scrap of paper sitting on the floor just above the phone. I must have picked up the receiver at least a half a dozen times preparing to call him, but I would always hang it up at the last second. Then suddenly, with a burst of adrenalin, I found my fingers dialing the number. I didn’t hang up, but my throat was so dry I couldn’t swallow. The phone was ringing. And someone was picking it up. I held my hand over my chest to try and quiet the thumping that was that was so intense it was scaring me.

“Hello?” It was the voice of a little girl, about 10 years old. I couldn’t fathom who it might be.
"Hello. Is Tony there, please?”
There was a pause on the other end. “Yeah, who is this?”
Then it was my turn to pause. I was trembling all over. “I’m his daughter.”
The little girl laughed into the phone, and it startled me. “No, you’re not,” she said. “I AM.” And then I heard the familiar “click” and the phone went dead. These people certainly knew how to hang up a phone, I thought.

His daughter? This was impossible. My father was a lonely skipper, navigating his vessel toward distant lands. His only daughters were my sister and I, whom he left behind long ago in order to pursue his dreams.

I felt irate that I had been hung up on a second time; so without hesitation I called right back. I was prepared to have a fight with this little girl, who was pretending to be my sister. But this time, an older gentleman answered the phone. He sounded exactly the way Mike did, with a thick Italian accent. I knew it was him. And the way he said hello was so full with grief that my soul darkened like a gray cloud. It felt as though the whole world was crying. There was a lifetime of regret and grief in that hello.

“Hello?” I said back, almost inaudibly. I felt tears rising in my nasal passages and in my throat. For a minute there was only breathing. I could hear my father’s breath. And he could hear mine. We both knew we were connected.
“Why do you say you’re my daughter?” he finally asked.
“My name is Cathy, and....” but I didn’t have a chance to finish my sentence.
“Catherine Anne, yes? Hello Caterina. This is your Papa’. I’ve been expecting this call for many years. But this has to be a private conversation, do you understand? My son and daughter do not know I had a family previously. Capish?”
“Yes.” I hardly knew what I was saying. I had just learned I had a half brother and sister. That he had remarried and had a family.
“I cannot believe this is you,” he said, his voice filled with pain. “I cannot believe I am talking to my daughter. Do you know I love you? I have always loved you.”
“You have?”
“Si’ Bella. I must ask you, are you robust?”
I thought it was an odd question, and I began to giggle. I wasn’t even sure I knew what the word meant.
“What do you mean, am I robust?”
“I saw a girl on a bus one day. She would be about your age. She looked like my daughter. Very robust. I mean healthy, you understand? Vigorous.”
I laughed at this. “I guess so, but the only bus I take is the school bus,” I told him.
“Oh,” he said sadly, seemingly disappointed. “How is your sister?”
“She’s here but she’s not sure she wants to talk to you. Maybe later.”
“Oh,” he said sadly again. “And how is your brother?”
His last comment echoed like a menacing statement in the back of my subconscious. “Brother?” I said. I had no idea what brother he was talking about, but a part of me knew that he must be telling the truth. He is my father, and he would certainly know if I had a brother. But surely he must be mistaken, I thought to myself. “I don’t have a brother,” I finally answered.
“Oh,” he said sadly again. “Hmmmm. They still haven’t told you, eh? I always worried they might never tell you. That’s why I had to leave, do you understand? Capish?”

I can’t remember what happened after that moment, or how the phone eventually got hung up. I know my sister eventually came to the phone and spoke with him as well. But the only thing I could think about was this strange confession he made. It was a concept I could hardly wrap my brain around, this idea that I had a brother, and if I did, I wondered where he was.

When my sister got off the phone, I asked her if he had mentioned a brother. When she said that he hadn’t, I excitedly repeated everything that Tony had told me, and asked her what on earth he might be talking about. She looked as stunned as I, and in moments we were practically screaming, shouting back and forth dozens of theories and possibilities. Suddenly my sister said, “I KNOW WHO IT IS!”

She ran back to her room, and a moment later emerged carrying a picture of our Uncle George, the boy I had lived with half of my life. She held his picture up next to her face. We had always known they looked exactly alike, my sister and my brother; in fact people often mistook them for twins when they were very little. And throughout our lives we’d all remarked how our noses were the same, or our curly hair. “GEORGE IS OUR BROTHER.”

When the truth is presented to you in black and white, which it literally was, there are no longer any questions. This revelation was like a giant puzzle piece which had always been missing, which suddenly snapped into place with a tremendous thud. All of the questions we raised about George’s origins all of our lives came sharply into focus.

I remembered the time George came into my bedroom, looking as though he were about to burst into tears. “I found adoption papers,” he told me. “I’m adopted. I’m not related to any of you.”

“That’s impossible,” I told him. “We look exactly alike. We have to be related. You must have misunderstood what you saw.”

I also remembered the time George and I were reading the Guinness Book of World Records, and we came across the oldest woman to have ever given birth at that time. George said, “This is strange. My mother was only a few years younger than the oldest woman to have ever given birth. Is that right?” We both narrowed our eyebrows in disbelief, and we started trying to figure out exactly how old my grandmother was when she gave birth to George. And it seemed a bit remarkable.

I also remembered a lifetime of funny looks, every time a stranger would think we were all siblings. When we’d argue back and tell them he was our Uncle, a strange look would come over their faces; a look of disbelief. Now I know what those looks meant. They were thinking, “He is your brother but they’ve lied to you about it for some reason. What a pity.”

All of these thoughts filled my brain and I knew my sister was correct. “Let’s go wake up Mom and ask her,” my sister suggested. And that is exactly what we did.

In a moment we had dragged my mother out of bed and sat her down in front of us. There was no mistaking our exuberance and our horror; I believe she knew what was coming. Her face was greatly pained, as if this was a moment she had expected for a long time. She weakly lit a cigarette and her hand was shaking. We had something important to say. And we had no time to waste in explaining how we knew what we knew; there was no mention of the fact that I had found Tony or that I had called him. Or that Tony told us we had a brother. We just came straight out with it. “Is George our brother?” we asked her.

My sister and I have often recounted the way my mother took a long drag off her cigarette and let the smoke out in the slowest steady stream we had ever seen. Then she took the deepest breath, and said only one word. “Yes.” She whispered it.

My sister and I were verging on hysteria. The questions tumbled out of our mouths faster than we could ask them; but we were filled with anger and regret and suspicion. My bubble of innocence popped so loud it was almost audible. I was certain I would never trust anyone, ever again.

“Let me explain,” she said. I looked at my mother and she seemed strangely peaceful; almost relieved that the secret had been revealed at long last. “My mother, your grandmother, married a much younger man than she. You both know that Beba is 20 years younger, don’t you?” Beba was like our grandfather, even though he was only a couple of years older than my mother.

We nodded. “My mother was too old to have children, but her husband wanted a child very badly. And my mother didn’t want to lose him. She first asked if she could adopt you,” my Mom said, looking at my sister. “But I wouldn’t hear of it. And then she began to beg us; Tony and me. My mother begged us to have a child for her that she could raise as her own. I became a surrogate for her. We gave George away the moment he was born; I wasn’t even allowed to hold him. Tony was never happy after that. He managed to impregnate me with you, Cathy, and then he left. My mother swore me to secrecy, and I agreed never to tell her secret. And now I have to ask you girls to never reveal this secret. You cannot tell your brother what you know, EVER. And you can not tell your grandmother that you know either. Do you both promise me? Swear to me.”

This moment became another crossroads of my life; an instant where, in retrospect, I know I had sold my soul. I had agreed to lie.

My sister and I both nodded. My mother stood up. “I haven’t even told my husband this. I’m going to tell him now.” Even my step-father didn’t know. I was in such shock, I could hardly comprehend it all.

It took me four years after this incident to go looking for my father in person, which I eventually did. The reason it took me so long was that I needed to process the news I’d been given in that first exchange with him; I didn’t have the room in my psyche to handle any more. I had been asked to keep a secret; a secret that was much too big to keep; and I wrestled daily with it; from the morality aspect, to the shame and the guilt. There was a dark shadow in the back of my mind that constantly mocked me and every day that I kept mum a little more toxic poison was released into my blood stream.

I actually wrote to “Dear Abbey” at the time, to ask what I should do, but Abbey never responded or published my letter. Every time I saw George, I felt as though the secret would literally rip my skin apart, as if I was sewn together with seams. I was going to burst. His continued jokes about our Italian heritage suddenly struck me as painful; and he would cock his head and wonder why I had stopped laughing.

To this day, I abhor secrets. And I abhor lies. Secrets will eat you alive. When you keep a secret, your soul becomes a dungeon where you bury the truth; and it begins to fill with spider webs and dust. One lie causes you to tell another lie, and soon they begin to pile on top of each other, and there’s no room for anything else. And every day your psyche feels a little bit filthier, yet you know there is no way to clean yourself. Your innocence has been shot like a hapless victim in the back; your gullibility has been fatally injured and it’s stumbling away from you, running and bleeding. Your soul begins to smell like toxic fumes and its stench begins to leak into your nostrils and onto your taste buds. Yet you have no choice but to keep on dancing; you must dance in a world of pretend, you must dance to the beat of deceit, and you must plaster a disingenuous smile across your lips, so that no one will ever know.

This secret changed my life irrevocably; because I have never really trusted the world ever again. People lie constantly; and they are just as constant about justifying why they do so. Perhaps it is to protect another, or to spare someone else pain. People lie to get a job; they lie about where they’ve been; they lie about what they’ve done. And if you question them, they always recite some vague reason as to why it’s acceptable. But I don’t think there is ever a reason, and ultimately there is never a purpose. And the irony is, the truth will always come out. And it isn’t until it does, that you will ever be free.

The only thing that kept me sane was writing. Writing, to me, seems to be the antithesis of keeping secrets. I needed to express everything; I needed to reveal what the world was trying to hide.

We never told our grandmother or George that we knew, but we told everyone else. Even his girlfriend knew. Soon, everyone in George’s life was forced to keep this toxic secret. He was the only person who didn’t know who he was; a birthright, I should think.

It was Tony who eventually told George, many years later. My brother walked into his father’s house that evening as one man, and he walked out as quite another. He had just met Tony for the first time; years after my sister and I were in constant contact with him. Eventually Tony would tell his own children about us, and we became one big family. I constantly urged my brother to pay him a visit, but he had little interest. “He’s not MY father,” he would tell me, “why should I go?” But Tony begged us to keep on trying.

The night George finally agreed to go, the door opened, and Tony stood there, staring. “Georgio,” he said. “Let’s go take a walk.” We all knew what was coming. I shook my head in Tony’s direction, pleading with him not to reveal the secret. But Tony ignored me. I knew George was confused as to why they needed to leave the minute we had all arrived at his house for dinner, but George left with him. And when he came back, he looked like a different person.

My brother used to laugh easily; his eyes crinkling in an adorable way that always made me smile. But after he learned the truth, I never saw him laugh as easily again. Certainly he still teases, and still makes jokes. But I can always see the shadow in his eyes; a darkness and melancholy that first appeared the evening he learned the truth.

Some days, I think that they should have just put arsenic in our Halloween candy. It might have been easier than what they did do; and that was to release deadly venom into the bloodstreams of our souls, a toxic poison that still kills us all a little bit every day.

Yes, maybe the arsenic would have been better. At least it’s a little more honest. Capish?
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Monday, October 19, 2009

The Stepford Wife

When I was a child, I assumed that when a man eventually proposed marriage to me, it would be the old fashioned way. He would have one knee on the ground, and the black velvet box outstretched in his trembling hand. He would have a speech prepared of course; and I would swoon with his declarations of ever lasting love. This scenario wasn’t my fantasy, really; I had just been conditioned to believe that this was the way things happened.

But when my marriage proposal came, it was me who was on my knees.

I was scrubbing the kitchen floor with a bucket of hot soapy water, a dab of sweat at each temple. The fact that the sight of me bent over, being a domesticated goddess, or a soapy slave, inspired this man to propose marriage might have been a red flag. Because I always knew that I could never be a traditional woman.

As early as I can remember, I didn’t want to have children. I remember boasting about this to my mother, to which she replied, “Oh, you’ll change your mind one day.” But I never did. I also thought it highly unlikely that I would ever be married.

But that day, as I rubbed a filthy washcloth over the linoleum, I agreed to be married.

I was only 19 years old.

My life changed overnight.

The life I imagined that I would lead would be one of a hedonistic writer. I wanted to live passionately; I wanted to live like the Beatniks did in the 1950’s. I dreamed of another literary movement, so I, too, could be a part of a sub-culture. I wanted to live in the bowels of an underground America, serenaded by jazz, sex, and poetry. I wanted the purple dawns and drugs that Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty knew in Kerouac’s “On the Road,” and just like Jack I wanted my own cross-country bohemian odyssey. I wanted to drive a vehicle like an unguided missile, my one arm waving free toward the sunset, over prairies and desserts and cities; my mind ripe with lusty descriptions of all of it. I wanted to frequent coffee houses with my writer friends, and smoke cigarettes until the ashtray overflowed. I wanted to drink one too many cappuccinos, and have zealous debates while delving into intellectual conversations about William Burroughs. I wanted to be free.

But the day I accepted marriage, my life took an awkward turn.

Suddenly I was elbow-deep in china patterns and choosing invitations and flowers. I was thrust into the role of a pink fairy princess; something I never wanted to be. I knew that most little girls dreamed about that time in their lives, but it wasn’t my dream. And I felt I had to pretend that it was.

This idea of being someone’s wife perplexed me. I didn’t understand how it was possible to leave my soul intact, without metamorphosing into somebody else’s idea of what I should be. I was too young; I hadn’t even become fully what I was going to be, and already I had to bend my will to another.

The first order of business was to buy me an engagement ring. My husband-to-be didn’t want to pick it out; he wanted me to choose my own so that I would really love it.

I was glad he did. I had no use for diamonds; I felt they were bourgeoisie. I wanted a blue sapphire in an antique setting; a ring with history, a ring which fed my soul. So my fiancĂ©’ took me shopping for just that. It took us all day, but finally I found a ring that I loved. The jeweler agreed to clean it and send it. I was excited about that ring, and could imagine wearing it for the rest of my life.

Two days later, my husband-to-be followed tradition, and did it “right.” After a wonderful dinner, he plopped down on one knee and brought out a little velvet box, and asked me to become his wife. But when I opened it, the ring I had chosen was not there. Instead I found a traditional engagement ring; white gold, with an enormous diamond that protruded so far from the setting that I was certain I’d put out someone’s eye with it. But worse, I had this dreaded feeling that there was a conspiracy going on, and someone was trying to drive me insane. After all, where was the ring I had chosen? And what was my expected response, was I to pretend I was happy and not mention that the ring had morphed into something hideous? It felt a little like the Twilight Zone.

“What happened to the ring I chose?” I asked.

“My mother thought it was improper,” he said. “She insisted you should have this instead. She said it was BETTER.”

Oh dear God. The MOTHER-IN-LAW.

The mother-in-law, as it turned out, didn’t like any of my choices.

The day I was sent out to register for gifts, a horrifying little ritual, I spent the day choosing practical arty pieces that I found aesthetically pleasing. I didn’t like the idea of telling people to buy me gifts, let alone dictating precisely what they should buy me. But this is what I was told to do, so I chose items I loved. My mother-in-law went back the next day, and changed every single choice I’d made; registering me for conservative china; something that might be found at a Presidential dinner. Ornate silver and ridiculously expensive crystal replaced my more moderate choices. And I didn’t know she’d gone behind my back until the gifts began to arrive.

I chose a rock and roll band for the reception that was to be held at a very hip location; the Bach Dynamite Society in Half Moon Bay. Unbeknownst to me, she canceled the rock band and ordered a sedate quartet. By then I was learning; and without her knowing or finding out, I rehired the rock band. The look on her face when the band came to set up at my reception was priceless. She told me the music I’d chosen would ruin an otherwise perfect day.

But the most frightening thing was the MOTHER-IN-LAW insisted that we marry in a Catholic Church. I had been baptized Catholic, that much is true. But it was only because in the 5th grade, when we all had to announce what church we belonged to, I didn’t have an answer. So I went home and insisted that my parents baptize me. Most of the children were Catholics, so that is what I chose. My baptism was almost humorous; I was an 11 year old girl, all dressed up in a white frock, standing in line with a dozen infants.

But other than not wanting to be embarrassed at school, my baptism served no other purpose; I did not want to be affiliated with any organized religion. The prospect of being married in a Catholic church frightened me. Even more frightening, was that I was sent away to live in a nunnery with nuns for a week, a time I supposed they hoped to brainwash me. I remember lying in my bed that first morning; a little cot in a chilly little room, and being awakened by a nun in a black habit. She told me the first order of business was to meet with the Father, where I would promise to have children and raise them Catholic. I didn’t plan on having children, and I sure as hell didn’t want to promise I’d raise them in a faith I didn’t believe in. But I was brought to a dark room and I was forced to agree to a falsehood; and to sign away my soul. I was being buried by a dark blanket of deceit.

My life had turned into a lie. I was a fraud. I couldn’t fight the establishment. I was a mechanical wind-up toy. Like a Stepford wife, I was being sent down an endless corridor of conformity.

I did end up getting my way on some things. I rejected the idea of a receiving line; after all, I wasn’t royalty, and I found the ritual pretentious. I refused to wear a veil; the roots of this tradition meant submission to the man, and I wasn’t having that. I wouldn’t let the priest say, “I now pronounce you man and wife,” but rather “husband and wife.” And my bridesmaid dresses were hand sewn from five different materials and lace; and my bridesmaids wore strawflower wreaths with long colorful ribbons in their hair. They looked like flower-children of the 60’s. I tried to hang onto who I was, but those victories were few and far between.

My first bridal shower was like an episode from a horror film.

A half hour before the event was to begin, I was ushered into a back bedroom at my mother-in-law’s house. There on the bed was an outfit for me to wear. It was a gruesome little ensemble; a white pleated skirt, white blouse, white hose, and white high heels. I argued vehemently; saying I was fine in the new dress I had bought for the occasion; but she wouldn’t hear of it. I dutifully changed, and then was led into a living room that was all white; white carpet and white couches; fake flowers and horrific paintings, like you might see in a hotel; and a far cry from the colorful artsy interiors of my childhood. We drank punch that contained no alcohol. We played inane dreadful little games. But worse than any of that, was that I did not know a single person there. Other than my mother and sister-in-law to be, the room was full of strangers; older women dressed tightly in provincial suits, wearing corsages.

I almost choked. “Where are MY friends?” I whispered.

“Oh, I’m sure they’ll have another party for you. But these are MY friends. And they’re WEALTHY.”

It was a nightmare I feared I’d never awake from. I sat there with a plastered smile on my face, as I opened present after present; silver tea sets and crystal candy dishes, monogrammed towels and napkin holders from Tiffany’s. “And this is from....Mrs. Baker?” I’d call out weakly, scanning the crowd for a woman to identify herself. And when she did, “Thank you Mrs. Baker, it’s very lovely.” But it wasn’t lovely at all; I wanted to smash it all against the wall, rip off my white pleated skirt, and go screaming into the suburban streets half naked.

But it was the stationary I received from my mother-in-law which nearly sent me into a tailspin. It read, “Mrs. HIS NAME.” It was his name. It read Mrs. His first name, His middle name, and His last name. I was Mrs. Him.

“You know, I hadn’t really decided to take his name,” I offered in a feeble small voice. “I was thinking of hyphenating it, maybe, so I could keep my name as well.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” my mother-in-law spat back. “OF COURSE you will take our name.”

My entire identity, at last had been stripped.

After the marriage, it only grew worse. I remember coming home from work one evening, and when I opened my front door, all of our antique and funky furniture were gone, and had been replaced with a hideous living room “set” of matching everything. “Your mother-in-law is certainly generous,” my friends would offer, as a way to console me. But to me, these weren’t gifts at all; they were manipulations and controls disguised as presents. She was trying to slowly alter who I was.

My evenings were spent having dinner at the In-laws, or at Lyon’s Club functions. My father-in-law was the Governor of the Lyon’s Club, and I was forced to endure meetings, conventions, and banquets; and I was paraded around in conservative suits and corsages, just like the women wore at my Bridal Shower. It was utterly void of color, of intellect, and of art. I was a smiling mannequin, and the person I knew myself to be was dying. I was dying a little every day.

I believed, for a time, that pretending to be something I wasn’t was the right choice. I thought maturity was about putting my own desires aside, and opting what is best for the greater whole. And for a time, I vowed to sacrifice my own lusty perspective in favor of what was expected of me.

My husband and I separated seven years later. I found a special peace in telling my mother-in-law that the primary problem in our marriage was her incessant interference. And once those words were finally uttered, I danced into the unknown; following an eccentric beat that I recognized as my own. I left my husband and took nothing; I left the china and the crystal and the property and the bank accounts. In fact, I was homeless for six months.

I had a post office box, and my mother-in-law sent me checks in the mail for a full year. I never knew why she sent me money, and I was so impoverished at the time, I didn’t care why. At the end of that year, she called me on the phone and asked me if I was done being a silly little girl, and when I was returning to my husband. I told her “never,” and I felt I had sprouted wings. The checks stopped. And I was free. I started to remember that purple dawn I had dreamed of long ago; the one that served as a backdrop to my life of poetry and non-conformity.

I often muse about children and young adults who give up their hopes and dreams in order to fit in. They are socialized before they are even aware of it; and they are conditioned from a young age to live someone else’s truth. Sadly, this often continues throughout their lives until they stand up for themselves, and actively seek to reignite the spark that society has extinguished. I believe the dreams we have about our lives are signposts to our authentic selves, and happiness is found in pursuing them.

I never wanted to be a fairy princess, draped in pink, forced to endure coffee klatches and idle chitchat. I wanted to be wicked. I wanted to be drunk with profligacy. I wanted my soul to burst with everything that it longed to express.

And although I am constantly tested, I make a vow and a promise to myself every day; and this is a vow, unlike my marriage vows, I try to honor. And that is to never be a fraud again. If I can stay true to that, I know my life will find the right course.
"Let the beauty you love be what you do."  --Rumi

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Math Geek

The day I discovered that I was good at math, I was horrified. I felt as though Lucifer himself had risen from his fiery pit, and had stolen my soul. I was devastated. And I would never be the same again.

I had always hated math, and all math related topics. I especially hated my math teachers. Their personalities were so dry, I swore that if I blew on them they’d disintegrate like a pyramid of crumbs, and then scatter like dust in the wind. They were like desiccated fruit.

My algebra teacher, Mr. Connors, was the classic example of a geek, before geeks became popular. Black slacks, white crisp shirt, butch cut, pen protector in the pocket, horned rimmed glasses. I decided that he must be a virgin; I couldn’t imagine him getting passionate and sweaty. I would squirm when I thought what his kisses might be like; tight arid pecks, void of moisture.

Mr. Connors’ lessons were given in a steady monotone; an annoying drone about constants, variables, and Quadratic Equations that made me want to stand up and scream. There was the constant squeak and clatter of chalk against chalkboard, and what would spill forth were rows upon rows of nonsensical twaddle; parentheses and X’s where numbers should be; an annoying array of plus, minus and equal signs, spelled out as if they were actual sentences.

How dare this mumbo jumbo parade around as if they were sentences! The sentences I loved were made out of words. Beautiful strings of words, held together by stanzas and paragraphs; descriptive snippets which oozed with love, death, agony, and the mysteries of life. Poetry and literature; that is where the sentences I understood were nestled, safe in their beds of wisdom and communication.

These math sentences were unsightly, meaningless gibberish.

Because Mr. Connors was always writing his ugly sentences on the board, I had plenty of time to stare at the back of his head and his very red neck. I found this far more interesting than the rubbish he filled the chalkboard with. His neck bulged slightly at the collar; I decided this was his only physical imperfection. He was strangely flawless; I was certain he’d never dropped a spoonful of pea soup down his tie. He was a robot; an unfeeling android. It was Square Root this, and Square Root that, and I often felt tempted to sneak up behind him and bonk him on the head with a heavy metal object. Not to kill him, but rather to shut him up. “Bang, bang, Maxwell’s Silver Hammer came down upon his head,” I would sing under my breath, trying to block his mind numbing prattle.

I cut my Algebra class as often as I could, and only attended just enough to pass the course. In those days, they didn’t care too much about delinquencies from class; truants were rarely punished, and because we had few restrictions, graduating from High School really became our choice. No one was really going to force you to put in the necessary time; you were either going to work hard enough to pass, or you weren’t.

I was going to pass. I was going onto college, and I had planned on getting the highest degree I could earn; a PhD in Literature. I had dreams as big as a Harvest Moon; I was going to be a novelist; a journalist; a columnist, and a War Correspondent. I was going to work at the San Francisco Chronicle, and I was going to share the occasional giggle with Herb Caen, whose office would be just down the hall from mine. I was going to rub shoulders with leather elbowed novelists, who would puff on a pipe as they’d quip about their latest narrative. I would be a member of the elite Literati, and I would spend the rest of my life dedicated to perfecting prose.

Sadly, this was never to be.

When I was a senior in High School, my parents sat me down one day, and explained to me that they were moving to Hopland, to the country home my Dad had been building for a decade. They would give me a month; I had to get my driver’s license, which I had been putting off; buy a car, find a job, and find an apartment. I got my first credit card, and was in debt for $20,000 right out of the gate. I had no car, let alone anything to start a home.

Their announcement was one of the lowest moments of my life. I sat there dumbfounded; and I saw every dream I’d ever had for my future fly out the window, flapping merrily away, with little black wings. The depression was beyond tears; I was mute for a long time. “I’m still in High School,” I finally said, as low and soft as my voice would go. But nothing I said would have mattered. I had to become an adult seemingly overnight, and I knew that college would have to be put on hold. I needed a job. And I could no longer take on menial jobs as I’d done in my past; I had to earn a living. I had to pay rent.

I went to work full time at Insurance Company in San Mateo. I honestly couldn’t tell you what my job even was; not only don’t I remember, but it was so inane I hardly knew what I was doing then. But I do remember that part of my job was mailing out hundreds and hundreds of policy statements to clients. So I typed up a small note which said something like: “I’m a frustrated writer held captive in Corporate America; in a tedious repetitive job that will surely suck the life out of me. If you can help me realize my dreams, and be a working writer, please call me at this number. 726-4854. Thank you.” I then took this note and made hundreds of copies of it, carefully cut each one out, and piled them on my desk next to the stack of policies. Before I would enclose the policy in the envelope and seal it, I would tape one of these little notes to the bottom of the page.

No job offers came from this. But it did earn me a trip to the boss’ office, when a client called and complained. And this led to another meaningless job and to another. I decided that if this was going to be my life,  I would rather be dead.

But the nightmare only worsened in intensity. It was a beautiful autumn day, and my boyfriend was sitting on the patio in my front yard, doing his Algebra homework. He was whining and groaning; making sounds that were familiar to me, as they were similar to the noises I made when forced to listen to the incessant drivel from Mr. Connors. I ignored his feeble attempts to gain my pity; and while I had great empathy for his plight, I was determined to go nowhere near his math book. “Heeelllllllllllllppppppp Meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee,” he would bleat, as he would bang his head against his book.


I didn’t understand what pleasure could be found in math. The whole idea of math was that it was a solvable puzzle; it was only a mystery until it was unraveled. It was a concrete science; and answers were either wrong or right. But there was always an answer; there was always a finite conclusion. Even if that answer was infinity.

Words intrigued me, because in my mind they were the reverse. The beauty of words was that there was no answer; literature and poetry are just beautiful chains of ambiguity and questions, strung together delicately, with the most invisible of filaments. There is no wrong or right; there is no black or white. It was an imperfect science without any conclusion.

“Help meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee,” he pleaded again.

“You know I hate math. Stop bugging me. I wouldn’t be of any help anyway. Do you know I barely passed Algebra in High School?”

“I know, I know, but just read this ONE problem with me, please. Maybe you can give me some perspective; something I cannot see. PLEASE. I can’t figure out what it MEANS.”

Rolling my eyes, I walked toward him, and toward the dreaded math book. I took a disinterested glance downward, and saw those strings of math sentences; just like the ones Mr. Connors would write on the board; the same ones that filled me with dread, confusion and loathing.

Imagine my horror, when I stared down at the page, and I could suddenly read them.
It was like staring at a page of words written in a foreign tongue that suddenly make sense. We’ve all seen pages of Chinese or Farsi; strange symbols that appear like nonsense on the page; and while we know that others can read the words written there, we also know that no matter how hard we try, we’ll never be able to decipher their code.

That was the way Algebra always felt to me, and in this one moment, when I stared at the page, it felt like I looked at a Chinese book and could suddenly, miraculously, read Chinese. But I didn’t feel joy; as if a magic wand had just given me a special gift of seeing; rather I was utterly sickened.

In short, this led me to becoming an accountant. Without any training, the double entry system made sense to me upon first glance. My mind wrapped around the entire accounting concept; as if I’d always known it. And unfortunately, I was very good at it.

When I would come in for interviews, I would often get similar remarks. “Wow, you’re not what we usually expect when we interview for an accountant!” They always said it in a jolly but judgmental way, which caused the hair on the back of my neck to stand up. With my wild hair, and robust personality, they couldn’t quite imagine me sitting quietly in a corner office, seriously clattering away on an adding machine.

But I tried to fit in. I tried to look like an accountant. I tried to look like Mr. Connors.

In the early days, I would don panty hose, heels, and business suits; I talked in a monotone business-like way.  I was efficient and calculated. Strangely, somehow, someway I could never truly hide who I was. I don’t know if it was my wild hair or wild eyes, or that I wore too many rings on my fingers. Perhaps it was my hearty laugh, which I couldn’t suppress from bursting forth when something struck me as ironic. But somehow they always figured out that beneath my business demeanor lived an untamed poet, aching to write.

I did beg for a job at the San Francisco Chronicle once. And I mean, I really begged. I decided to write a letter that would scream my true passion to such an extent that someone would feel my crazed enthusiasm, and like a freak accident, would offer me an interview. They sent back a personalized letter which was quite kind considering, saying they enjoyed my writing samples, but I needed more experience to become a columnist.

Somewhere along the line, I did find that there was actually a great deal of creativity in accounting. It was much more fluid than I had previously thought; I discovered that the Balance Sheet was actually something that could be manipulated. Not in a dishonest way, but a good accountant can book things one way or another to make the financials appear to the owner’s liking, depending on the scenario at hand. And on some level, I enjoyed making sense out of chaos, which is really what the job of the accountant is. Not to mention, it paid well.

But one year turned to a decade, and a decade turned to two. And as the years slipped by, I had built a resume of my life, which could scarcely be changed. The longer I worked as an accountant, the farther away I got from being a writer. When I would apply for writing jobs, I could really only offer 25 years as an accountant for my history. And every day I just slipped farther and farther away from my dream.
Over the years the ache has faded. Or perhaps I’m just in denial.

Because it still aches.

A lot.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Christmas in the Tenderloin

They say that if you remember the 60’s that you weren’t really there. This motto, of course, argues that anyone who actually was there spent the majority of the decade high on drugs. But the adage forgets a faction of people who were there and didn’t take drugs; and that would be the children.

The hippie, in his tie-dyed t-shirt and long flowing hair has become an enduring archetype that rivals any archetype before it, and although only a child, I have always been grateful that I had a front row seat to this revolutionary time. The world was in flux; and that unrest had even reached my front door.

My father told me he was too old to be a hippie. He was in his early 40’s, after all, and the majority of the hippie movement involved optimistic kids in their 20’s. But being an artist, and an always forward-thinking individual, he embraced the movement.

At least at first.

“You can trust anyone with a beard,” he once told me. And as short-sighted as that sounds now, it was true for a time. I still remember when he eventually retracted that statement, saying a beard was no longer a guarantee of benevolence.

My father railed against the Viet Nam war, and raking Lyndon Johnson over the coals was a nightly ritual which I came to enjoy. The images of war haunted the poet inside of me, and I had taken to carefully cutting out various war pictures from magazines and gluing them in scrapbooks. Later some of these images became famous; such as the Vietnamese child running screaming and naked after she'd been burned with napalm toward a bashful camera. I had cut that picture out in a circular shape, and I can still see it stuck on the manila pages where I’d put it; it was an image that I referred to often when I needed to cry.

When Wallace was running for President, my father called a family meeting, and told us that if he were elected, we’d be moving to Europe. This was a frightening thought for a nine year old; and I became engrossed with the Presidential race that year; praying every night that Wallace would lose and we could stay in Moss Beach, only footsteps from the ocean.

During those years, my father uncharacteristically took my sister and me out on many excursions; he told us that a lot was happening in the world, and he wanted us to be a part of it. I remember several Peace Rallies and Protest Marches; all of which I took very seriously. We would sing Joe McDonald’s song religiously, “And it’s one, two, three what are we fighting for? Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn; next stop is Viet Nam.” I loved the line about being the first people on the block to have your son sent home in a box. Even then, its sarcasm fed me.

During the Summer of Love he took us on a special outing to the Haight Ashbury district. He spent an inordinate amount of time explaining the “scene” as he put it, as we drove to San Francisco that day. I had no idea what to expect; but I will never forget it; and I am grateful that I had a glimpse of that historic display from the back of my father’s white Volkswagen bug. He wouldn’t let us out of the car to roam about; but he did take us up and down the street several times at a snail’s pace. My face was pressed against the glass as I stared out into a cacophony of color, sound and motion that I could hardly comprehend. Young people were everywhere; we could really only inch through the crowd slowly anyway, and we were glad. The street was awash with every color under the rainbow; and the scent of patchouli oil and marijuana drifted through my Dad’s open window. I couldn’t take the sights in fast enough; I spotted a group of young men wearing dreadlocks and playing bongos; then a circle of girls painting hearts on each other’s cheeks. It was a kaleidoscope of long hair, beads, psychedelic signs, top hats, and peace signs. I remember a group of girls all sitting in a circle, creating daisy chains. I had never seen anything like it, and I excitedly pointed, “Look, Look!” as we paused beside them. The chain they were working on was long; perhaps six feet or more; and they each wore smaller chains as wreaths upon their long straight hair. I couldn’t wait to get home and make my own daisy chain.

To be sure, that was a memorable excursion. But there was an excursion that my father took us on that I remember far better than those. It was on Christmas Eve, after a holiday party.

In those days, children hardly ever accompanied the adults to a grown-up party. They were appropriately left home with babysitters, so that the adults could enjoy themselves unfettered. They didn’t want children around trying to eat the pot brownies, for instance, which I tried to do once. I was so incensed when they told me I wasn’t allowed this treat, without any explanation whatsoever.

If my parents had their own party, we were escorted to our bedrooms after a quick hello to the guests, armed with a T.V. dinner and television to entertain us. If my parents couldn’t find a babysitter, we were brought along, but we’d be ushered immediately to the children’s room, where we’d spend the evening with the children of the host and hostesses. This particular Christmas Eve was exactly that scenario.

My parents certainly partied. They loved their martinis; they smoked a little pot; and one day I even walked in on them smoking banana peels. There was a fleeting urban myth that banana peels could get you high; but these myths were followed by many more. But regardless of any of this, my father was far from an alcoholic, and in fact I’d never seen him really drunk in my life; not until that Christmas Eve.

When it was time to go home, my sister and I were retrieved from the back bedroom. We had been sound asleep, and as my mother steered us toward the car, I noticed something was wrong with Dad. He was slightly slurring his speech and behaving erratically. And he was ranting and raving, standing proud atop his very own soap box, spilling diatribes to anyone who might listen.

Of course my father got behind the wheel. In those days, driving drunk was nothing like it is today; it was done with great regularity by plenty of revelers. But on this night, my mother offered to drive; something I had never heard her do. My father wouldn’t hear of it.

The memory is dull, but I remember a frantic yelp from my mother, and as I looked up I read the sign in front of me. It was red, and it said “Go Back. You are going the wrong way.” The car lurched into a panic, my sister and my mother pleading with my father to pull over. At the time, I didn’t really realize that we were going the wrong way down the freeway.

My father spun quickly in a hasty U-turn, driving right over a bumpy median, and soon we were facing in the appropriate direction, speeding down the highway at a fast clip. I remember my mother saying in a strained voice hardly above a whisper, “This isn’t the way home, Dear. Please let me drive.”

“I know where I’m going,” my father snapped back. “I want to show the children something before we go home.”

I remember those words, because I found them far more terrifying than driving down the highway in the wrong direction. It was Christmas Eve, and it felt very, very late. Santa Claus had left the North Pole hours ago, and he would surely arrive at our house very shortly. I hadn’t even hung my stocking on the fireplace yet, let alone put out a glass of milk and cookies, which I always did. It was a tiring night for Santa, and anything I could offer in the way of sustenance and refreshment, I was happy to oblige.

“We have to be home before Santa gets there,” I yelled out. “Please can we just go home right now?”

“No,” my father said. “You won’t want to miss this.”

His answer filled me with dread. Because sometimes he would say these words right before he did something horrible, that only he thought was funny. I thought back to earlier that spring, when I lovingly carried around a chocolate chicken that I had received in my Easter Basket. I loved that chicken, and called it “Chick Chick,” and I took it everywhere; it would even sit with me at the dinner table. One night my father insisted I put Chick Chick in the middle of the table and close my eyes. I resisted because I feared the worst; then he told me I wouldn’t want to miss what he was about to do. I did as I was told, and when I opened my eyes upon his command, Chick Chick was in the middle of the table, but missing its head. And my father was licking chocolate from his lips and laughing.

“I don’t care if I miss it,” I pleaded with my father. “If Santa comes and we’re not home, he will just leave. Mom told us that if children aren’t in bed and sleeping when he comes, he won’t leave the presents! Please!”

My father ignored me. We were hurdling down the streets, and soon I recognized the group of tall buildings on the horizon; we were headed toward San Francisco. For a moment I imagined that we might be going to see the gigantic tree in Union Square; I loved going there, with the giant ice rink on the roof and the buildings swathed in Christmas decoration.

But we didn’t head toward any glittering lights. In fact with every block we drove, the streets looked darker and more sinister. I stared out my window from the back of the Volkswagen bug, and I could see the wet streets; they were muddy with rain and littered with garbage. Everywhere I looked, I saw indigents camped; squatting under newspaper, or sleeping under garbage bags. “Why are all of those people sleeping on the street?” I asked.

“They’re homeless,” my father answered, and I noticed he was looking for a parking place. It all felt very ominous.

“Dear, please tell me you’re not parking the car here,” my Mom spoke, her voice rising ever so slightly. “It’s dangerous. For Christ sakes, dear, this has gone too far. We would like to go home. Now please.” My mother spoke with a British accent.

My father found a parking place and pulled in. “Okay, I want everyone out,” he said.

My mother cupped her hands over his, which were poised over the ignition. “This is the tenderloin district and it’s the middle of the night,” she said. “Don’t be daft. We’re not taking the children here.”

“I don’t want to get out,” I said fearfully. An old decrepit man began tapping on our window, begging for spare change.

My father jumped out of the car and handed the old man a few dollars from his wallet. He sent him away, and then opened the car doors for the rest of us. “We’re going for a walk,” he told us.
And we did.

We went on a long walk. My mother grabbed my hand, and I clung to her with everything that I had. I was fighting back tears as we traveled up one block and down another, stepping over sleeping bodies which littered the pavement. It was sprinkling lightly, and I was shivering; both from cold and apprehension. People who appeared crazy came to us and tried to begin conversations. Empty beer and liquor bottles rolled noisily into the gutters. The streets were silent, except strangled nonsensical screams from its many inhabitants.

Suddenly my father stopped us all. He said, “Merry Christmas” to a sad neglected lady standing near by, and then he turned to us. “Tomorrow is Christmas,” he told us. “And I brought you here because I want you to reflect on a few things. Christmas is a time when we come together to celebrate the brotherhood of man. A time when we reach out to our neighbor, who might not be doing as well as we are, and offer them a helping hand. Good Will Toward Men. But no one has reached out a hand to any of the people here. They don’t have a warm bed to go home to,” he said as he looked sternly at me.

The neglected lady asked my father for spare change. He gave her a few dollars. “So I took you here tonight,” he went on, “to remind you all how lucky you are. When you wake up tomorrow on Christmas morning and you tear into your packages, maybe you won’t receive everything you had hoped to receive. But I want you to be grateful for what you have, and think about these people you see here tonight, who won’t wake up to anything tomorrow morning. That’s why I took you here tonight. Do you understand?”

We nodded. And with that, he agreed to take us home.

But the torture wasn’t over yet. When we were only minutes from home, my father pulled to the side of the cliff on a road called “Devil’s Slide,” a mountain road which snakes around sheer cliffs, and connects the coast to the rest of the world. The road always terrified me; I was certain we would drive over the steep cliffs and plummet to our deaths. But worse yet, only a week before we’d read in the newspaper about a father who asked his family to step out of the car on this same stretch of road under the rouse of his wanting to take their picture. Once they did, he pushed them unceremoniously off the cliff.

“Get out of the car please!” my father demanded.

I was shaking with fear; I was certain I was about to be murdered. But I did as I was told. I was careful not to stand too closely to him. “I just wanted to show you the Moon,” he said beaming. “Isn’t that a beautiful sight? It is hanging so low in the sky and is so full. I would love to paint it.” I could hardly even listen to what he was saying. The only thing on my mind was fear, Santa Claus, and bed. In that order.

I resented my father as we finally drove home that Christmas Eve. I was shaking as I hung my stocking above the fireplace; certain that Santa had already come and gone. I couldn’t get warm; and it didn’t feel like Christmas Eve; a night I was usually filled with so much joy I could hardly stand it. It felt cold and lonely, and I could still smell the stench of the homeless; like stale beer and bacteria; like urine, decay and death. I crawled into bed shaking, and cried myself to sleep.

But something happened to my psyche as I slept.

When I awoke, the world seemed much clearer. I had gleaned some sort of understanding that I previously couldn’t grasp. And I felt the true spirit of the holiday, the way I had never experienced it before. The crisp paper crackling in my stocking filled me with a joy; it no longer mattered what was inside the package. It was the delicious smells and the laughter and the tree and the love. It was being grateful just to be alive; grateful to have a warm meal and safe haven. And I couldn’t stop thinking about that glorious full moon; so ripe above the dark crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean; just tinged with purple. That image was a holiday card in my mind; I started understanding what Peace on Earth really meant.
That morning I realized that “good” and “bad” and “right” and “wrong” are merely perceptions. Because it is often the situations we perceive as “bad” that provide us with the greatest growth and insight. And as we careen down the highway of our lives, perhaps the best we can hope for is to spot that imaginary sign that warns us to go back; that tells us we are going the wrong way.   In fact, you'll never even see that sign unless you take the wrong road.  And perhaps the only way to find the right way is by going in the wrong direction first.

It wasn’t Santa Claus that inspired me to scribble reams of poetry that winter. It was the frightening car ride, the homeless, and that giant tinted moon.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Brownie Concentration Camp

It was amazing that they allowed me to go to Brownie Camp that year at all.

Only two months earlier, I had been thrown out of my Brownie troop for pretending to poison all of my fellow Brownies with L.S.D. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I had wandered into the lunch room and encountered a full box of sugar cubes on the table. Children, of course, love sugar; so I went around offering sugar cubes to all of the other little Brownies. Once they had chewed on it sufficiently, I told them that they had just dropped Acid, and would begin to hallucinate in about twenty minutes.

It was the 60’s.
I was nine years old.

I didn’t make a very good Brownie. I detested the costume; it was the color of baby excrement; and I didn’t like the “uniform;” it reminded me of being a soldier. It was the same feeling I had later when I dropped out of the Marching Band in 8th grade; I loved the flute, but I detested the marching. Uniforms reminded me of the images I saw daily of the Viet Nam War. My father had made us wear black arm bands to school, and had told us not to pledge allegiance to the flag until the war was over. I didn’t like uniforms.

The sash I wore over my brown issued dress was empty of Merit Badges, save one. And that was the Badge I had earned for Creative Writing. It was the only badge I tried to earn, or that interested me. I loved it; it depicted a little old fashioned ink pen with a pool of spilled ink pouring from its tip.

I didn’t enjoy the Brownies. I hated their rituals and their songs. And the cookies; I hated those damn cookies; especially being forced to peddle them door to door like the Jehovah Witnesses which my parents always hid from. So pretending to drug an entire troop of little girls sounded like a marvelous way to entertain myself at the time; and it was my favorite day of Brownie’s ever.

When I was tossed out of the Troop, my mother didn’t like it even one little bit. “I’ll give them a piece of my mind,” she told me, as she picked up the phone. I offered protest, citing the many reasons I was actually glad to be thrown out, but she wouldn’t hear of it.

I remember her pleading on the phone with the Troop Leader, reiterating over and over that it was simply a childish prank, and I shouldn’t be excluded this way. But the Troop Leader fought back; saying that the sugar cube incident wasn’t the only reason I was expelled. She told my mother that it was also because I was “swearing.”

“Swearing? What did she say?” I heard my mother ask. Then, to my horror, she began to rattle off a litany of the worst expletives in the book; words I would never dream of saying.

“No, none of those,” I learned later was the Troop Leader’s response. “She used the Lord’s name in vain.” My mother loved telling this part of the story, and used this gushy pious voice when she mimicked the Troop Leader.

“OH GOD, PLEASE,” was my mother’s annoyed response. It was apparent where I learned that one.

Needless to say, I was immediately reinstated into Brownie Troop 566. In part, this was important to my parents who had planned a month long trip to Europe that summer; just the two of them. The two weeks I would spend at Brownie Camp would cut down their babysitting needs in half; the other two weeks I would spend with my grandmother.

I didn’t mind the idea, initially, of going to Brownie Camp. I read the pamphlet over and over, making certain that I was utterly prepared for this grand adventure. “Camp Misty Lake offers 2-week programs for girls. Campers can enjoy canoeing, swimming, fishing, hiking, nature study, outdoor cooking, crafts, adventure and more!” I read every word of the literature. I liked the idea of on-site Naturalists, who would teach us “nature lore.” I was especially intrigued by the “midnight kidnapping adventures” to which they alluded. But far better than the promised activities, I would be attending camp with my very best friend in the entire world, Sheila.

I read carefully the insert which listed “items your child should pack.” It was an extremely long list, and I wanted to make sure I followed the recommendations exactly. Rain Slicker (1) Pairs of socks (10) Tennis Shoes (2) Flashlight (1) Sleeping Bag (1) Bathing Suit (2) Brownie Issue shorts (2) Brownie Issue t-shirts (5) It also stated that every article of clothing must have the child’s name sewn into the item.

“Mom, I have to have my name sewn into EVERYTHING,” I told her.

“Even the socks?” she asked, as she started up the sewing machine with a loud whir.

“Yes, even the socks. Look, it says it right here.”

I wouldn’t leave any stone unturned. This was to be the first time I would go away without my parents, and I had to be prepared.

When the day to leave for camp finally came, I’d been staying with my grandmother for a week. My parents were off in Europe, and I was standing nervously at my grandmother’s door, surrounded by an enormous pile of camping gear and luggage. “We’re going to be late!” I screamed at my grandmother who took forever getting ready that morning, carefully applying her lipstick and adding lotion to her legs.

Finally I was driven to the Bus Stop. I couldn’t jump out of the car fast enough; there was at least fifty children already lined up against the backdrop of the huge Greyhound Bus. I saw my friend Sheila in line, and frantically waved. “I’m holding your place!” she shouted back, and when I reached her we fell into each other’s arms breathlessly. The excitement was palpable.

I’d never been on a real bus before; only school busses. With its plush grey interior; reclining seats and a bathroom in the rear, it seemed to me to be the epitome of luxury. It was a long ride; I had no idea where we were going; but I felt that we were going far, far away. The ride was great fun; we sang song after song, and Sheila and I giggled until we would fall into the aisle in hysterics. I felt very grown up.

When we arrived at Camp Misty Lake, my eyes grew as wide as saucers. There were at least a thousand other children there, all arriving in a long line of busses which wound like snakes toward the reception area. I had never seen so many children in one place in all of my life. There were suitcases and sleeping bags and screaming little girls as far as my eyes could see.

Eventually we all gathered in the reception area, and a friendly man dressed entirely in brown khaki greeted us with a Megaphone. “Greetings BROWNIES!” he called out. The children cheered in response, which made the man smile. “Behind me is a large table containing the names of every child here, in alphabetical order. Your job is to find your name on that table, and when you do you will find that they are all color coded, and that will tell you which camp you’ve been assigned to. There are 40 Brownies in each camp.”

Sheila and I ran off to find our name tags, and to find out the name of our individual camp. We knew we’d be in the same one, as my mother called before going to Europe and pre-arranged it. But when we found our name tags, to our extreme chagrin, they were different colors.

Sheila and I marched up to the nice man in the brown clothes, and told him that there had been a horrible mistake. “We were supposed to be put together in the same camp,” I explained patiently. “Yet we have different colored name tags.”

“Yes, I see that,” the man said beaming. “Well, what is our Brownie Motto? Girls? Let’s say it together. Make new friends. But keep the old. One is silver and the other’s gold.” Neither Sheila nor I chanted the motto with him. “So Brownie Camp is an excellent opportunity for you girls to make NEW friends. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

I wanted to slap the smug look off his face. “My Mom called ahead,” I explained. “And she wrote a request that we put together.”

“I’m sure she did, Sweetie. But that isn’t Brownie Policy. Now run along and stand with your individual groups. You can visit with each other during meal time, at the Grand Mess Hall.”

I was crushed. Two weeks of camp without Sheila seemed like an eternity. But as instructed, I gathered my gear and followed my group to our individual camp. I was somewhat intrigued by the smattering of white canvas tents I found there; peeking out from behind trees and bushes, encircling a large campfire in the middle. I liked the campfire; it was surrounded by rows of logs that had been carved into benches.

I was assigned a tent, and one of my new roommates asked if she could lay her sleeping bag down next to mine. I nodded sadly. That’s where Sheila should have been, I thought to myself. “Hi,” said the girl breathlessly. “See this ring I’m wearing? It’s a poison ring. And it’s filled with poison. The little needle in the middle is how I can stab people. If I stab you with it in the middle of the night, you’ll die right away and no one will ever know it was me who killed you.”


I ignored the strange girl and set up my sleeping area. I began to feel scared, and terribly homesick. But I didn’t have time to dwell on it; we were being called to the campfire for our first meeting.

The girls all gathered, and the Naturalists assigned to our camp introduced themselves. They were explaining that our first activity was called, “Tippy Too Canoe,” and we were all going on a race in the river; and the team that tipped their canoe the least times would win a special prize. They began handing out large orange life vests to each girl.

When they reached me, I held out my hand expectantly, but the Naturalist stared a little too long at my name tag. “Cathy, I’m afraid you won’t be canoeing today,” he told me. I was utterly perplexed and asked why. “Your grandmother didn’t give you permission, that’s why,” he said.

“My grandmother signed all the permission slips. I made sure she did. I know she did,” I said, my voice rising in a panic.

“Yes, she signed the permission slips. But she specifically denied permission for what she called dangerous activities. You are not allowed to canoe, swim, or hike. But you are allowed to do crafts, and that sort of thing.”

What? It was like I was having a nightmare, and I couldn’t wake up. How could my grandmother do this to me? “Can we call her? I’ll explain it to her. She didn’t understand. I’ll make sure she gives me permission.”

“I’m afraid not, we have already spoken with her, and she was quite adamant. She said you like to write poetry, is that true? I see you only have one badge on your sash, and that’s for Creative Writing. We’ll find you a nice quiet place where you can make poems today?” I considered for a moment becoming a Guerilla Terrorist Brownie; a midnight marauder who would overturn tents, frighten other children, and wreak havoc on their spurious little organization. But instead I was led dutifully to the Crafts Room.

My days at camp were mostly spent alone, or locked into a room with children who had physical disabilities. I wrote long anguished prose about my incarceration in this saccharine drenched penitentiary; I wrote of my suffering, my syrupy imprisonment, and my phony captors. I denounced the Brownies; I used words that I had heard my father utter during one of his political rants; words and phrases like “Fascist” and “Police State.” My captors were Pigs.

My only happiness was the three meals a day in the Grand Mess Hall in the middle of camp. There I would meet Sheila, and we’d laugh so hard we often forgot to eat our meal. Sheila was enduring her own brand of torture; her camp mate, for instance, had urinated on her pillow purposely. Our situation had turned dire. We had found ourselves in a Concentration Camp, and our only hope was to escape. We had decided to make a plan; and we agreed we would sneak out of our individual camps at midnight and meet deep in the woods to devise our strategy.

But we didn’t get that far. We were suddenly surrounded by two Nazi Guards who asked us sternly to follow them. The Third Reich had arrived. We were both led outside of the Grand Mess Hall, with the two SS men behind us. I imagined a machine gun aimed at the small of my back; and I knew the drill well. They would lull us into some false sense of security, and then put a bullet through our heads. I could smell the stench of death and hopelessness everywhere. I could hardly swallow.

Once outside, the sentinel informed us that Sheila and I would no longer be able to sit together at meal time; adding that our meal-time laughter and secret conversations had begun to disturb the other Brownies. It was Genocide.

They reminded us that the idea of Brownie Camp was to make new friends; and they uttered these words with their Stepford Wife smiles as they threw me back into permanent isolation. I was an inmate with new found hatred in my heart.

On my last day of camp I marched myself into the office of the Camp Leader, and threw a poem I had penned on her desk. It was entitled, “Brownies are Fascist Pigs.” The Leader read over my poem, and promptly expelled me permanently from the Brownie Organization on the spot. It was D-Day at last. And I was free.

My mother never argued to have me re-instated.
I never became a Girl Scout.

I learned that day that the Pen was indeed mightier than the Sword. And I vowed that day to make writing work for me, forevermore. I know that if I don’t, I’ll never really be free.

Me in Kindergarten

Me in Kindergarten