Friday, December 6, 2013

55: Mandela

The day the Old Father died, nations mourned. They sang in every tongue of his sacrifice and deeds, and though countless tears were shed, millions smiled because, thanks to him, they could.

I was but one that day, but it was the first day I lived as if I alone could make a real difference.
* * * * *
FFF-55 Vol. LXV. Tell a story in exactly 55 words. Go see G-Man. Dedicated to the life of Nelson Mandela, July 18, 1918-December 5, 2013.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Not My Job

My work involves chemicals. I've spent nearly two decades in the industry in various positions. Even though I've never worked in sales or marketing, and my job description has never involved a cash register or name tag, one thing I've learned is that every job is a customer service job.

My current position involves an occasional phone call from a tech rep, distributor, or sometimes a customer, requesting documents related to the caller's compliance, usually with some government agency. What they actually purchase isn't supplied by my department, not even close, but they need the information we provide in order to stay in business (legally, anyway).

Sometimes, the customer calls don't make any sense. Because our company is pretty huge, it has dozens or hundreds of brand names just in my business area alone, not to mention thousands of products. The company's main way of growing is by acquiring other businesses and their brands/products, and therefore also their customers. There's just no way I could become familiar with all the relevant products I might be called about. That is why, like most companies, we rely so heavily on our IT and data systems. But that is another post entirely.

Today, the call didn't make any sense. This guy rattles off several strings of numbers and text that may or may not indicate a product code, industry specification, batch number, product name, or anything else that might help me figure out what he's got on his shelf. He doesn't know, either, where that information is or what it might even look like. This is not a surprise to me: his job is not to actually use the products anyway, but to ensure his employer isn't sued or fined. He needs a document to do that.

Since none of the tidbits of info he gave me made sense, and also since my job title isn't Human Product Database, I forwarded this information to another department, at a location that used to manufacture the brand name on the product the customer was inquiring about, to get help, or at least get closer to the information I needed. What I got in response was essentially an eloquent (but bordering on rude) version of this: Not My Job (NMJ).

I loathe this phrase, and while I can appreciate its usefulness in keeping healthy professional boundaries and doing my own best work first, it is not something I'll declare with ease or pride. I think it is too often used (at worst) as an excuse to ignore the needs of others or avoid taking responsibility, or (at best) to refuse to learn something new.

Now, I realize that the person from whom I asked the help also doesn't have the title Human Product Database (but she does have the title Customer Service Manager). And just to be clear, I didn't necessarily ask her to identify the product based on the scraps of information I provided: I only asked that, if she couldn't help me, she pass on the information to someone who might. I guess I may as well have asked that she cut off her own arms while doing a handstand.

When I replied to her email, I was (again) cheerful and cordial and thankful "for whatever assistance you can offer," I also CC'd both my managers. I was shut down again; her response was "As I mentioned... I cannot provide you any information." To make matters worse, my own manager also replied, making a much more polite version (she used the word "unfortunately") of the same response. So again, I got two more "NMJ"s.

So let's recount the facts:

  •  We have (had; the product is almost 20 years old) a customer who paid money for one of our very specialized, industry-specific, and often overpriced products. 
  •  The product was made by our company (or a predecessor, albeit not at the facility where the person whose help I requested works. This was the one piece of useful information she was able to provide.)
  •  This customer now wishes to responsibly dispose of the product, but can't do it legally without the documentation it's my company's responsibility to provide.
  •  Because of other areas of my business, and my own management, I am now forced to give the following response to the customer: NMJ.

Which leaves this poor guy in the dust, with a potentially dangerous chemical in his facility. If it falls down and spills, or someone opens it by mistake and gets hurt, or injects it into their veins, or sprinkles it on their toast, no one will know the hazards or exposure risks, and it's his ass on the line. Is that how Salt Mine, Inc. takes care of its customers? That's not what they keep on telling me.

Of course, it could also mean he throws the product into a garbage can, it ends up in a landfill and/or busts open somewhere, and (because it has my company name on it), the next call for information on this product won't come from the customer himself, but the US EPA. And they'll fine us up the wazoo. And do you know who'll have to take that call? Possibly the Customer Service Manager. Eventually my supervisor.

All I know is this: it won't be me, because those calls are... NMJ.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Birthday Dinner

Tonight I hosted a dinner in honor of what would have been my dad's 69th birthday. My household family was there, of course, as well as my mom, sister, and father-in-law. The way I wrote it in the 55 is pretty spot-on; I do like things to be just so, especially since my dad can't actually be here, and though all intention that falls short of execution will go completely unnoticed by the living attendees, it will not go unexcused by myself.

Of course I know my dad was here today. It didn't take much more than my almost involuntary reaction to the Lions' awful performance today against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for me to realize that. And I've been on an emotional edge today for other reasons. So needless to say the dinner tonight was pulled off almost exactly as if my dad was trying to hide his smoking in my basement (which is to say, with much tenuousness and crabbiness on my part).

I do miss my dad. Terribly. I miss his sense of humor and his laugh, and his seriousness. I miss the things he was passionate about that almost always surprised me (except football and politics). I even miss his short temper and often too-quick reactions to things that weren't really that big a deal. It's a convenient side effect of his passing that I no longer have to deal with some things, but I miss them nonetheless.

I wanted to make a grand toast tonight at my dinner table, but I decided it'd taken so damned long to get everyone around the table in the first place, and on top of that the steaks were getting cold, that I just plunged into the dinner. There was still a toast, but no speech. So here is the meager edited version of what might have been a spectacular (though likely very long-winded) impromptu oration.

I've had this journal with me for months, carrying it to and from work and school every single day. I have it with me more often then I have my cell phone. I've written in it sporadically over the years and never really gone back to see what's in there. Tonight, for a completely unrelated reason than today's tangent, I pulled it out and opened it to the first page, dated 8 December 1997. It reads:
    "Well, today we found out for sure that N is pregnant. We already knew as of Saturday, but the doctor made it official today. Congratulations, to me.

    "I feel as if I should be doing something, becoming something. I mentioned it to N and she feels that way also. Of course, it's exciting. Of course, I wanted a baby. Then why do I not feel so full of joy, so excited at the prospect of becoming (being?) a father? I hope I will not ruin these first days of discovery for myself, or especially N. It would be a shame to remember our first days of knowing we'd conceived our first born as confused and troubled.

    [And here I discuss possible reasons that seem trivial after all this time.]

    "My deepest fear is that it's simply because N's pregnant. I want so badly to be a provider, a man of morality and integrity, worthy of greeting my first child and leading him/her through life. I want to be strong, responsible, intelligent, improvisational, reasonable, funny--I want to be what I think the perfect MAN should be. But then, I've always wanted that.

    "Maybe this is about all of a sudden not being all those things when, in 9 months, someone will arrive into this world who will expect and need me to be nothing less. Can I be a good, decent father if I am not all those things? Sure there are lots of scumbags who can pass along their DNA, but I want to be something special. Will I be? My fear is that I will not."
That child I worried so much about being a father to turned 15 this summer, and I still have the same worries on an almost daily basis. I love this kid more than any words can express. He has a younger brother and sister now, too, so the worries have only compounded. My inability to be a good enough man has left for them potholes they won't know how to navigate around, because their mother and I haven't learned ourselves. I have watched them fail in detestable ways and seen only a reflection of myself. But I have also seen a miracle occur: I have seen them succeed in ways I never could have imagined for either myself or them.

I didn't get to know my dad very well before he was killed by cancer and chemotherapy, but I knew him well enough to understand that he also lived with these same fears every day of my life. He was a bastard sometimes, truly. He was an alcoholic and an abuser. And I don't make excuses for him. But I understand him, because from an emotional perspective, I have become him. He was in pain his entire life. He was ill equipped for manhood and fatherhood, because despite what society demonstrates, men are taught to be Men; it's not automatic, and the expectation that it could be is a Great Bullshit Lie. After learning some things about my dad later, things he would certainly have been loathe to share with any other human being, let alone those who called him Dad, I think his performance as a father was nothing short of a miracle.

Tonight I honor my dad, not just with a meal or company, but with the weight I carry in my heart. He died was taken away before he could fully become himself, and we were all therefore deprived of an even more amazing person. Every year since his passing, I realize how much like him I'm becoming, and that I'm on the same painful journey of self-discovery he never really started in earnest. He and I have the same unfinished business.

I'm not taking on his burdens; I have my own aplenty. But I will still carry with me memories of his painful nights, his addictive fits, his simple loves and pleasures. I will consult his life's laboratory notebook while doing my own painful experiment in Happiness, and as I complete my own, I'll jot down a few solutions for his benefit as I work though them. He wanted happiness for me, and my siblings, without having a clue how to find it himself. This I understand very painfully as a parent myself. But in his nobility as a sufferer, he did so much of the footwork for us ahead of time. He could never have known this; in fact I'm certain it was a point of shame for him, but it's something for which I will always be grateful. I truly think he knows it now, and it may even be satisfying, though he no doubt still carries great regrets over the man he wanted to be while he lived.

As for me, I will try to become a good and decent enough Man for the both of us. Happy birthday, dad. I will always, always love you, and miss you forever.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

55: Birthday

Image credit
The day of his birthday, I always stressed a little. I wanted everything right: dinner, card, dessert, and family around the table. I grilled steaks, and we ate like kings.

Later that night, I put the sealed envelope into my drawer, next to five unopened birthday and Father’s Day cards.

I really miss my dad.
* * * * *
FFF-55 Vol. LXIV. Tell a story in exactly fifty-five words. Go see G-ManIn honor of my dad, who would have been 69 today.

Friday, November 15, 2013

55: Anonymity Not Included

(Republished 6 January 2016)

I was in town on business and we’d met in a bar. Her perfume and eyes were intoxicating. “Gotta go; work tomorrow,” she said while dressing.

Next morning, I waited for the plant manager. I heard the click of shoes behind me, caught a familiar scent, and turned to look into those familiar blue eyes.
* * * * *
FFF-55 Vol. LXIII. Tell a story in exactly fifty-five words. Go see G-Man.

Friday, November 1, 2013

55: First Love

Image Source
The first time I saw her, I was atop the geodesic dome. Her perfect caramel skin and flowing black hair enthralled me, even across the playground. An unfamiliar lightness swirled in my stomach. I turned to my friend to inquire, “Who’s that new kid?”

Her name was Sonora. Suddenly the wood-chip air turned lovely sweet.
* * * * *
FFF-55 Vol. LXII. Tell a story in exactly fifty-five words. Go see G-Man.

Friday, October 18, 2013

55: Sister

The bike, the chair, the Sister, assorted accoutrements, and a dog named Trail: these will be the contents of our convoy in a mere handful of hours.

Years ago she moved away. I hope she’s found what she needs, because what I really need is her, within sharing-a-beer distance.

My best friend is coming home.

Friday, October 4, 2013

55: The Love of the Beautiful

Image credit: This is kind of gross.
When I was done, I smiled and looked at my work. The detail was exquisite: every finely crafted wheel and cog shone brilliantly as it turned. I carefully wound the spring and held my creation aloft, and it lit gently into the air, fluttering on rice paper wings.

“Strength,” I said, “is an earthly monster.”
* * * * *
FFF-55 Vol. LX. Tell a story in exactly fifty-five words. Go see G-Man. An ode to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Artist of the Beautiful, a short story that changed my life. (Also relevent: A Life Without Beauty.)

Wednesday, October 2, 2013


Image credit
I like to call it incomplete despair: I’m not exactly hitting bottom here, but my ass is sure dragging. The weight atop and the sludge below grind together and mash me into a human stew of emotional insolvency. Duty pulls me forward on a pointed hook fitted through a bloody hole, ensuring the only way I’ll ever really sink is if I break the towline and therefore lose any means of ever ascending again.

There is a light, some days, that I follow. Hope doesn't necessarily lift me, but seems to clear the waters, keeping alive a dream that I will emerge, in time, a Better Man. I know my foundation is true, but I doubt my course, and fear for my future, and given the example I’m setting, the futures of those I love.

I know it is not for naught, but I mourn the lost days, knowing when I finally stand free I’ll wish I’d acted years earlier. If only I knew what to do, I might even do it today. If only… but these chains are hard to break, especially considering I still have yet to understand them. Link by link, I must get through it. I owe this to myself and the people I love.

Friday, September 20, 2013

55: Culture Shock

Image credit
They sway in and out of the classroom, and I sit amazed. Being back in school is fun, it’s true, and certainly useful, but doing it as a 40 year old presents certain challenges: family, work schedule, kids’ sports…

And right now, the twenty-something girl who just walked in wearing yoga pants. 

Just shoot me.
* * * * *
FFF-55 Vol. LIX. Tell a story in exactly fifty-five words. Go see G-Man.

Friday, September 13, 2013

55: Emergence

Image Source:
I’m not sure what changed; I became aware of it all almost suddenly: unpaid bills, perpetual arguments, corners of the house buried in clutter, unfinished grief. Not that I hadn’t had my hands on it all every day for the last twenty years…

Now there was a new sensation as I cleared the rubble: daylight.
* * * * *
FFF-55 Vol. LVIII. Tell a story in exactly fifty-five words. Go see G-Man.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Brightly Coloured Crayons

Image credit:
“She was bendable light: she shone around every corner of my day.” 

Tonight, I had an extraordinary evening. I don't mean that generically; I mean that two specific things occurred that made it wonderful and beyond ordinary, things I hope I will remember forever.

The First thing: I read the novel Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli. This book was loaned to me by my sister, a human being who is beyond words, who I had the rare occasion to see last week. We weren't discussing books, nor had any idea of suggested reading come up. She just handed it to me. A small part of me was annoyed, only because I haven't had (made) time to finish the other novel I'd been carrying around with me. The rest of me was elated, and I read the first page right there in the chair.

So tonight, having made plans to go out with my friends from work, and having been subsequently ditched by said friends, I decided I'd crack open Stargirl. My sister reported it as a three hour read, and though if I've ever read a novel in a single sitting I can't remember, I at least decided to get through a serious chunk of it.

Three hours, in fact, was a fair estimate, even at my slow reading rate (I don't bother to try reading quickly; I read to myself about the same speed that I read aloud). I knew in the first few chapters that Spinelli's art was sufficient to draw the same emotions experienced during The Book Thief, and midway through the tears started. Although the novel is short, and the story considerably simpler than that of Liesel Meminger, it was still written with the same passion, both tragic and elated, and by the end of the novel, I was bawling like a little child.

Tonight I made another bridge, and tapped those emotions that sit for too long beneath a pathetic veneer of mundane everydayness, a "world of gray nothings," as the novel's narrator says. And I connected with my sister, and her bridges. And I fell in love all over again with such a joyous thing. It's hard and disappointing to realize that I've become so 'mature' that I had forgotten the wondrous things a book can do, and when I came downstairs to the family, with my reddened eyes and my runny nose to don my shoes and find the dog's walking stuff, I hope they all noticed, and may yet wonder what power exists in books, so that they, too, might discover it on their own.

The Second thing: I took that walk with every intention of being immersed in a dark late summer night, devoid of anything interesting, so that Stargirl could sink in even deeper. The night failed me. Also, my daughter asked if she could come, and she is hard to refuse. Though I love this little girl more than anything, her presence is distracting with such a chore as mulling over the happenings of Mica, Arizona when Stargirl Caraway appears. So it goes. So the dog and I went out with my daughter, instead.

That wasn't the only change of plans. We hadn't yet left the driveway when we both noticed a large storm off to the west. The thunder rumbled vaguely but the lightning was definite. A flash occurred somewhere in the sky no less frequently than every second, yet the sky directly above was clear. As we walked, we watched it and wondered: it was a marvel, like a great feature film projected onto a vast screen solely for our benefit. We walked and talked, and we could see the storm moving, and I guessed maybe it would miss us. We discussed what might be happening only a handful of miles away: the terrible rain and awful racket of thunder, and how different it was from what we were experiencing. We talked about the book I'd read.

I asked my daughter if she thought it was weird that a book would make me cry. She said yes, almost with embarrassment. Then I described a box of crayons to her that was filled with only muted and dull colours: greys and browns and darks. I asked her to imagine using only that box for days and days, for so long you started to see everything in the world as one or another of only those shades. Then what would happen if one day, you were loaned those forgotten colours: reds and yellows and oranges, so you could draw a sun; and green and blue and violet, so you could draw a rainbow. And imagine what picture would emerge that day, that hour, when you finally had access to the brightly coloured crayons once more, especially if it were only for a little while, and you knew you'd have to return them.

And she understood where my emotions came from: she suddenly knew that all the happiness and sadness that might have caused my tears over the novel weren't a bad thing, but something wonderful, something necessary. And we both grew in that explanation and realization. And with the backdrop of lightning flashes above us, we both made it home before the rain came (I was wrong about it missing us), but as human beings more whole and more strongly bonded than before.

So tonight was extraordinary, and when my buddies and I do finally get together, I owe them every round of drinks, every appetizer, and more, because what has happened to me in the last handful of hours is something I never want to forget. I want to remember these sensations and emotions and sensitivities the rest of my life.

And I hope my daughter does too. I never want to lose what I shared with her tonight.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Weight

Obviously, it's time to give in.

I can't work; I can't think; I can't feel. I can't untangle something inside and I'm not even sure where that knot is, but I do know the lump it creates makes everything uncomfortable. My efforts to be a partner may be questionable now, but they went unnoticed or un(der?)appreciated for so long I can't tell if I've given up or I'm just being too guarded. My perspective is so mangled all I want to do is escape, but every effort I make to that end only brings guilt about what I'm avoiding, even though every moment away is ultimately spent in search of the Truth.

Truth--here's what it looks like at the tip: I want out, because there is no satisfaction. I've read so much bullshit about commitment and giving and providing it makes me want to puke, but not before flaming the idiotic Facebooker who posted it. It is NOT wrong for me to want to be satisfied in a relationship, or (God forbid) happy. And while I'm still working out exactly what happiness is, I know for goddamn sure what it isn't.

The arrangement isn't without its benefits. I don't deny that. I don't even deny that, at times, those benefits may be worth the trouble, except for the fact that every day we stay married, our children learn what they will think is normal: what they will seek out later when they are adults. That is a dangerous, deep-dark-thought provoking realization. So I fear I am only left with two choices, and both seem awful and destructive.

I just want to cry. I just want to beat something with my fists until they bleed. I just want to throw myself away and start over.

But there is no starting over, because Truth is an iceberg. Beneath the deranged pain and anger that sometimes consumes and debilitates me, below the surface of public and professional perception that keeps me getting out of bed every morning, is the rest of it all. I am broken. I am beautiful. I am rotten. I am growing. I evolve: spiritually, mentally. But I keep my body and feelings in chains because I am afraid of the work necessary to remove them, and ashamed of the scars that will become apparent when they are gone. I am deformed on the inside and contort myself on the outside to hide it, and it hurts a little more every single fucking day. The ice is ancient and colossal, beyond comprehension, and under its weight and influence I have suffered long and terribly.

The one thing that saves me is my routine. Work, school: it's a familiar track and I know where it goes. It provides a necessary distraction and they pay me well enough to show up. For these same reasons, the routine is also a terrible constrictor: once the work is done, my available resources for dealing with real issues are so limited as to restrict or eliminate my ability to solve anything. It's important for me to remember that my life will actually improve with formal education, and I suppose it could be worse: I could very easily be stuck in my situation without a means to support myself or those who have come to depend on me. With all the emotional stress I currently have, I must remember to be thankful of at least that much. Except on days like today, when the confusion and worry become so overwhelming I can't even get through a to-do list of 4 items.

This post is unfinished, and I submit it under duress, because I dare not allow what little clarity has come with its writing to fade away.


Friday, June 7, 2013

55: Best Served Cold

He had no idea I’d be there; the look on his face was priceless.

Later, when his wife was questioned, she’d report that he’d failed to meet her, that she thought he’d missed his flight, since that had happened before.

But in reality, he was becoming a permanent part of the new terminal’s concrete foundation.
* * * * *
FFF-55 Vol. LVII. Tell a story in exactly fifty-five words. Go see G-Man.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Haiku: Childhood Memory

Pole in hand, I walk
The trail, clunking along with
My dad's tacklebox

Join the fun!

Friday, May 31, 2013

55: Climax

Image source
Lightning—and your face lit up above me. A half second later, thunder crashed like artillery outside, and we met at our destination, bursting into each other in both body and spirit.

Several long seconds passed in the clouds overhead as the rumbling faded away into the miles, and you leaned down to kiss me.
* * * * *
FFF-55 Vol. LVII. Tell a story in exactly 55 words. Go see G-Man.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

55: Discovery

Image source: Moriah Cemetary
We never thought anything of it, usually. Cars came and went through those woods all the time. But last night something was different.

This morning my brother and I walked through there and discovered why: a freshly dug mound a hundred yards off the road in a gully, with human hair visible on one end.
* * * * *
FFF-55 Vol. LVI. Tell a story in exactly 55 words. Go see G-Man.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Untitled Nonsense

Love is a many-fendered thing
With red shoes and a fro
A splendid fish up-ends itself
With drywall screws to sow.

It rides along the jeweled street
And pulls a wagon train
Tomatoes laugh as it goes by
And revel in the rain.

A jolly driver ho-ho-hos
As little children wail
He stepped his fat ass off the thing
And landed on my tail.

"Good day for nonsense!" he loudly cried,
"And scanning lettered stamps."
I never heard his paper crays
Nor sliver'd to his lamp.

May 2nd, 2006

Friday, May 10, 2013

55: Castilleja

Image Source
The day she passed, I walked out of the house into a vast field of Indian paintbrush. The sun and the warm Missouri wind went swept into and through me, pulling out the broken pieces of jagged years. My whole world focused bright orange as the prairie fire took hold, and I've never gone back.
* * * * *
FFF-55 Vol. LV. Tell a story in exactly fifty-five words. Go see G-Man.

This 55 is dedicated to my grandmother, who was in hospice care when I wrote it. She passed a few days after. Rest in peace, Grama Hobgood, 11 March 1924-13 May 2013.

Friday, April 26, 2013

55: Dreamgirl

Image source
Our bodies fit perfectly together, inside and out. Hands and mouths explored, found soft and hard places, caressed and groped, tenderly and hungrily. She was familiar but I didn't know why; dreams have a way of concealing some truths, and also revealing others.

When I woke, I could still feel the softness of her lips.
* * * * *
FFF-55 Vol. LIV. Tell a story in exactly 55 words. Go see G-Man.

Friday, April 19, 2013

55: Heartstrings

Years of rigging
Fill up this chamber
Ropes and pulleys and anchors
Cables and swivels and hooks
Turnbuckles and swage sleeves and fiddle blocks
All connected to a central cardioid apparatus
That allow each operator
Large and small, young and old, begrudged and limerenced
To pull and twist and manipulate
The strings of my heart.
* * * * *
FFF-55 Vol. LIII. Tell a story in exactly 55 words. Go see G-Man.

Friday, April 12, 2013

55: Brother

On a dark April night when I was nine, my aunt arrived hurriedly. Mom and dad rushed out the door. There were confusion and excitement and fear, and tears of uncertainty. I remember standing at the old front door, being consoled in a way I’d never experienced.

The next day, I had a baby brother.
* * * * *
FFF-55 Vol. LII. Tell a story in exactly fifty-five words. Go see G-Man.

Friday, April 5, 2013

55: Fantasy Story Excerpt

Image credit: Max Gabl & Niel Wray, via Michael & Denise Okuda
Dropping out of the clouds, we could see the palace and surrounding waters. It was truly breathtaking: the whole of it could not possibly have been seen from the ground. The entire cabin fell silent as we descended, each of us wondering anew what was in store during the next few years of our apprenticeships.
* * * * *
FFF-55 Vol. LI. Tell a story in exactly fifty-five words. Go see G-Man.

Friday, March 29, 2013

55: Getaway Weekend

Forty long hours of work. Eight for class, and eight more on homework. Six or seven in the car. Three at the gym (four if you’re good).

But on that Friday afternoon, knowing you’ll soon be surrounded by trees, the tension slips away like a long, slow exhale. I can already smell that fire pit.
* * * * *
FFF-55 Vol. L. Tell a story in exactly fifty-five words. Go see G-Man.

The Old Tree

Here there once stood a great tree, which sprouted perfect and true. But through years of improper and cruel pruning, misdirection, and abuse, it became misshapen.

Still it grew as beautiful as it could, handsome and proud, though flawed, into the world. There it encountered many storms which, had it remained healthy, would not have affected it so. Thus this tree, as it aged, became gnarled and scarred as a result.

Over time the tree made offspring, and though they were born perfect and true, it knew not how to raise them so. Instead, it began to twist and stunt them in its own image, in the only ways it knew how to grow.

Over many years of storms and disease, the old tree succumbed. His last storm took him down in a sad and cruel assault. He fell silently into the forest. There lay his broken trunk finally open so all could see the beauty that was there, locked within.

And I, his offspring, grow truer and straighter without his shadow, but still sometimes wish for a guide, taller and hardier, as I make my journey toward the sky. I am still gnarled and scarred, but no longer can I blame the old tree--he did his very best. And looking back at the stumps of his past, I realize that he performed miracles of patience, and love, and nurturing, even though he did it with gnarled hands and stunted heart.

And now I will grow as straight and true as I am able. In honor, yes, but also for my own sake, and for the love of my offspring, who started out so perfect and true, but now are beginning to bear the signs of my influence.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally

“Idiots,” I mumbled under my breath as I saw yet another math-themed meme on my Facebook feed. This one read: “3+3x0+1=? ‘Like’ if 7! Comment if 4!” I mourned the wane of human intelligence and considered the simplicity of the order of operations and the beauty of the only pure science in the universe. The answer to this question wasn’t—would never be—either multiple choice or up for discussion!

“This’ll show them,” I thought as I entered the answer and prepared a tirade for anyone who might have considered themselves bright for doing anything other than dismissing this ridiculous game, especially those who engaged in arguments over why different answers might be correct. I took particular pleasure in insulting one person couldn’t even be bothered to type the full words “you” or “your.” After a smug and self-satisfying click of the post button, I went about my day.

It took less than an hour: throughout the higher functions of my morning, a thin doubt forced its way into my esoteric superiority and crumbled my confidence. In a panic, I went back to the comment to delete it, only to find that someone else had used it in their own tirade against my apparent ignorance. He took particular pleasure in using my words against me. His last insult to me was appropriately blistering: he called me an idiot.
* * * * *
This was meant to be a 55, but grew into something a little bigger. Enjoy!

Friday, February 22, 2013

55: My Bloody Valentine

What matters in life is books, and beer, and laughter, and sex. And hugs goodnight and walks in the woods. And everything else is just movement between all those things. Having that conversation was hard, but without it, I was just fooling both of us. That’s when she pulled out the machete. Oh my g-----
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FFF-55 Vol. XLIX. Tell a story in exactly 55 words. Go see G-Man.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Binge And Purge

For people who truly understand this term, binge and purge, it's well understood that a feeling of nausea should overcome any mental images accompanying the phrase. For those who don't know what this means, I'll explain: you gorge yourself on (typically) alcohol until you're senseless, then vomit it all out, along with other miscellany that may come with it. Sounds like a blast, eh?

The Red Book uses the terms emotional intoxication and emotional sobriety. The first is a state of mind brought on by the influence of whatever behaviors accompany a person's dysfunction and/or addiction. Point: it's the behaviors that cause the state of mind. It could be any number of things, from raging to codependence to avoiding a bill, but the effect on one's emotions is the same effect that alcohol has on the body: an intoxication that allows the indulger to believe that, just for right now, everything is okay, even though all around him/her, some situation that is usually perceived as a threat is swirling and ready to bring chaos. Just as with chemical/physical intoxication, emotional intoxication allows for a temporary escape.

Disclaimer on escaping: Knowing how to care for oneself well enough to recognize when it's more healthy to not deal with something is a serious life skill, and it necessarily involves the complementary skill of being able to plan to deal with the thing before it's too late, penalty or pain is incurred, etc. Doing this right ensures that, when you take the time to deal with an issue, it's done with an appropriate amount of attention and adequate resources. There are entire industries created around the need to escape (vacations/travel, recreation/sports, entertainment, etc.), but this all becomes unhealthy the moment the escape takes priority over dealing with the problem.

Some people spend the majority of their lives in a state of emotional intoxication to varying degrees, depending on the severity of the problems they're avoiding. Clearly, it's dysfunctional when avoidance is the default behavior as opposed to setting an appropriate priority to dealing with a problem, figuring out how to solve it, and putting that plan into action.

Emotional sobriety is the process of recognizing one's emotional intoxication and getting rid of it. Unlike physical sobriety, which, on the surface, just means not boozing or drugging it up, emotional sobriety is much more subtle and complicated to achieve. Many substance addictions are easy to recognize because, well, something must be consumed to engage in them: alcohol, painkillers, food, etc. But behaviors are usually harder to recognize, at least from the addict's point of view, and therefore harder to stop.

Imagine growing up in a house where, anytime the family ran out of bread or milk before grocery day, everyone got out the vodka and took shots until the problem was forgotten about, even the kids. Unhealthy, right? These people would all become physically intoxicated. It's almost funny how inappropriate this reaction would be to the stimulus. Now imagine if, in the same house and situation, everyone started yelling at each other, maybe about who used the last of it, or why we didn't make it last longer, or how some of it was wasted two days ago and now we're all out... ad nauseum. These people would become emotionally intoxicated. Ever seen a house like that? Ever lived in one? If so, you know that, growing up that way, you learn that yelling is the right response when things go wrong. Yelling takes the place of the addictive substance. Over time, dozens or hundreds of these lessons build up in children, who grow up thinking these behaviors normal, until one day they have a home and family of their own, and the bread or milk runs out before grocery day... (Repeat After Me)

Just like with substance addictions, addictive behaviors come with motivations and underlying causes that make perfect sense (subconsciously) to the addict. Stopping alcoholism isn't as simple as keeping a person from tipping the bottle. Addictions are preferred because they satisfy a need, usually emotional, which must be rooted out through a lifelong process and serious lifestyle changes. A person cannot simply stop addictive behavior, wither it involves consuming a substance or acting out, without understanding and addressing those needs. Even people who claim to have beaten an addiction have usually only moved on to some other substance or behavior (smoking, exercise, religion, work, rage, etc.) if they haven't dealt with the underlying issues.

Notice that, at no point in the previous examples, does anyone ever bite the bullet and go out to the store, or pull out the powdered milk and make everyone suck it up until grocery day because the powdered milk isn't nearly as good as the real thing. This is a rational response to running out of milk. It's true that none of these actions answer the questions about why some was wasted or who didn't stick to the rationing plan; the only way to do that is through rational discussion and candor with calm questions and honest answers, and then better planning. But this takes a tremendous amount of effort when the yelling response (and/or other myriad dysfunctional behaviors) are at work. And this is the challenge with emotional sobriety.

Now back to binge and purge. Just as alcohol can be overindulged in as an addictive substance, so can something like anger or withdrawal. Using these 'substances' instead of physical ones has the same effect: as a user, you become totally immersed in the effects of it, eventually extraordinarily so. You begin to feel the extremes of the behavior. Unfortunately, too much of the 'substance' halts normal emotional processing: you no longer listen or think rationally, you can't have a reasonable conversation, you're unable to use the social skills necessary to interact with people in a professional, social, or family setting. You hurt people.

And then comes the pain of realization. Just as the body begins to reject too much alcohol in the system by vomiting, so does the mind recognize lost connections or missed deadlines or failed obligations. Just as the body heaves to release the perceived poisons, the mind panics and goes into a stress response, and you as the 'user' undergo emotional extremes as you struggle to understand the impact of your behaviors and the damaging consequences. This is the purge, and just like puking doesn't always get out only that fifth of vodka you drank, emotional purges can also bring up other feelings and thoughts that were part of the mix during the bingeing.

I'm not saying that being emotionally intoxicated constitutes an emotional binge, nor am I saying that you are an addict (either of substances or behaviors) if you 'use' recreationally to explore those dark parts of yourself. Like alcohol, which can be recreationally misused (either accidentally by people who lack the experience to know how much is too much, or intentionally by those who want that escape once in a while), it's okay to 'recreationally' 'use' anger as a means of expression at times when it may not be completely appropriate, as long as you recognize and manage the potential risks. Indeed, since anger is a perfectly healthy response to some stimuli, learning how to control your anger, and your behavior while angry, including the way you act and speak to people, is really the only way possible of becoming skilled in using anger when it's called for. Another way to learn this is by watching how healthy angry people act, but now we're back to whether the family uses vodka or yelling or conversation to deal with running out of milk.

Emotional purging is a necessary part of being a behavioral addict. This is due, in part, to the frequency of emotional binges that occur, as compared to physical/chemical binges. Unfortunately, addictive behaviors are usually so subtle, or even socially acceptable (reality TV, anyone?), that it's sometimes difficult to recognize when they're being used without social interaction. At least, that's true in my case. As a result, emotional purging must occur. Through whatever activities are involved in the purge, the addict is hopefully able to sort through several emotions and/or behaviors at once, sorting out which ones are relevant and which ones are not, and string together a chain of remembered events or feelings that will he or she hopes to use as a sort of decoder key the next time some stressful stimulus presents itself and demands to be dealt with. That's how this blog was born and, most of the time, the purpose it's meant to serve. I share it publicly partly as a means of accountability, and because I occasionally wish to rant, criticize, or entertain to the lucky few who happen by. You know who you are ;)

Many thanks to my muse for today for shaking up the pieces of these thoughts well enough to fall together into a (semi)coherent post. This self-exploration was much-needed.


Postscript: When I wrote this, I was -in no way- making reference to the binge/purge cycle of bulimics  Any insensitivity encountered is purely unintentional.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Repeat After Me

This morning, we had a little craziness in my house as we all prepared for our days. I was getting myself ready to leave at 7:30, my kids were finishing up breakfast, and my wife was in the bathroom finshing her business. As I headed out the door, I said goodbye to everyone.

Less than a minute later, my phone buzzed in my pocket. In my pants pocket. I was on a two lane residential road with unpredictable patches of ice. There were school busses and other commuters moving in both directions. I was buckled in with two layers of coat over my waist and gloves on my hands, and I'd already spilled tea onto my breakfast of toast and peanut butter. I realize, every time this happens, that the caller has no idea of this--they are only calling for what they perceive to be a good reason--but each time it happens, I feel anger.

Repeat after me...

I got the phone out too late to answer, and in the process spilled more of my tea onto my center console. So I wouldn't have to repeat the previous process of unbundling the damn thing, I set it down next to me. Immediately it lit up again. It was my wife, saying she'd tried to flag me down when I pulled away because our son was late for orchestra practice. Knowing what was coming, I asked what she wanted me to do, and heard the answer. This is when the stress reaction started: fight or flight.

The fight or flight response was originally intended to save mankind from sabertooth tigers and ensure he had the strength to respond when assaulted by an enemy. It still serves a purpose. For example when stepping off a curb, if we hear a horn close by, our senses are heightened and our blood quickens, our muscles become instantly ready to react when we realize a car is heading for us, and we're able to back up in time to get out of the way, thereby saved by our cavedweller instincts. However, although our social evolution and lifestyles rarely demand a real life-or-death fight or flight reaction, one still takes place upon perception of some stress. Our blood vessels still constrict, our hearts begins to race, muscles tense, adrenaline is released... the whole biopharmaceutical package is delivered, even when we get a call from a bill collector or we suddenly realize... oh shit, my son is late for orchestra practice.

Back to that moment on the road: even before my wife answered my question, I knew she was going to ask me to turn around, come back home, and take our son to school. For some reason, this enrages me. Rationally, I of all people understand forgetfulness, even the occasional willful negligence. This is what happened to my wife and son: they forgot. My wife's alarm went off right about the time I probably put the car into drive and then they remembered. It makes all the sense in the world that she'd try to stop me so our boy could get to where he needed to be.

Emotionally, however, I was livid. All manner of questions about unmet responsibilities that weren't mine crossed my mind in an effort to justify telling her hell no, take him yourself. Fortunately my higher thinking intervened and I made the decision to help, but not without some malicious flavor. Because I was right near an intersection with no nearby traffic, I didn't take the time to answer the question, hang up the phone, and proceed back home. No, what I did was throw the phone onto the passenger side floor and do a quick U-turn. This is the only seemingly angry part of my reaction I can justify, as it really did save me probably two minutes--remember I'd only been on the road about a minute at this point. But everything after that, until my son exited my car, was pure dysfunctional response. The only part of the return trip I really remember well was getting caught driving like a crazy man by my neighbor as he walked his dog past my house.

Repeat after me...

By the time I'd pulled back into the driveway, I was fumbling around trying to find a place for my (wet) toast. It only took a few seconds for me to decide to just go back inside and grab towels. The door opened and my son exited; I told him to get in the car and headed to the kitchen as my wife stood there with wet hair and my daughter sat on the floor donning her boots. I flashed a mean look at my wife to express an ambiguous rage for being asked to come back home. I got my towels and stepped back through the foyer, again throwing as much angry energy at my wife as I could muster. I knew beneath my raging that she didn't deserve it, but I dished it out anyway, not because I didn't care that I was wrong to do it, not because I don't love her, not because I think she ought to be treated that way... just because my reaction had taken over, and some part of me insisted on driving home the point that I'd been horribly inconvenienced by her (yes, perfectly normal) forgetfulness. I know my rational mind was present because I expressly avoided eye contact with my daughter, with whom I not only had absolutely no quarrel, but also was terrified that she'd pick up on the way I was treating her mom and realize her dad is, in fact, a monster. My wife said, "Thank you," timidly; I grouched, "You're welcome," back; and stepped out of the house, slamming the door behind me.

Repeat after me...

I even grilled my son in the car. This was completely unfair. I know he's learned his share of dysfunctional responses because he replied to me with a raised, angry voice. I was reasonable enough to use words that expressed my simple need to figure out what had gone wrong, and tell him not to yell at me, but my tone was a million miles away from my intent. Hopefully, he'll remember that I told him I loved him when I dropped him off more than he'll remember the rest of it. Of course, that doesn't mean the rest of it won't have an effect on him, not to mention the impression my daughter got when I left the house.

Repeat after me...

None of what I can remember takes into account what may have happened in the house this morning after I left. I can imagine my wife and son's reactions upon hearing the alarm and realizing what it meant (panic?) I can imagine the mad shuffle to get me on the phone, and the response my wife may have had when I tossed the phone away (confusion? anger?) I can imagine the meaning of the words spoken as my son hurried to get his stuff together (your father is angry and it's all my fault? your father is angry and he's an asshole for acting this way?) I can imagine the thoughts of my daughter as she put on her boots, seemingly outside the situation, but completely immersed in the reactions both her parents were having (why is daddy angry? why is mommy crying? why didn't he say anything to me? why did he slam the door? why do I get punished when I slam a door?) Of course, all of this is speculation.

Repeat after me...

It is in this way that my wife and I perpetuate the broken and dysfunctional behaviors we learned in our families of origin. These reactions are a disease with which we were infected as children and continue to be affected as adults, and we are fully engaged in the process of passing it along to our own kids.

Today, for example, the lessons were:

  1. Even though you're not perfect, it's okay to expect others to be
  2. You should hold other people's mistakes against them
  3. If you are asked to help someone who's made a mistake, they should pay for it somehow
  4. Someone else's mistake is a cause for you to be angry
  5. The proper way to act when angry is shows of verbal and physical violence
  6. If you make someone angry, you deserve to be mistreated
  7. The proper way to react to an angry person is to yield to whatever abuse they dish out, or lash back at them with an even bigger reaction

Thinking about some of the arguments in my house in the past, I know my kids are learning these lessons well, and using each other to practice their own dysfunctional behaviors for when they are grown and have families. As I look back on it now, I am ashamed, as I am every time something similar happens. Deep down, my heart breaks for it. I am working hard at just being able to recognize these behaviors. I know the only thing I can do afterward is apologize. Many days I still have no idea how to prevent the reactions before they occur, but when I am able to, I am met with a special brand of resistance only a fellow dysfunctional person can deliver, which only deepends the mess.

The fact is I am sick, and at this point, I am always left wondering how to move forward. As with every day, there is work to be done, and I can't afford to stop for long. Rarely do I have the luxury of stepping away from my existence and responsibilities to examine the behaviors that tear apart my relationships, and even when I do, I'm out of the context of those relationships, so any proposed solution is only experimental until I'm back in my 'real world,' and therefore subject to a response by the people in those relationships (who are also sick) that might completely dismantle whatever outcome I may have hoped for.

Rays of such sunlight are ever fleeting and must be appreciated when they appear, or healing will never happen. To ignore the problem just keeps the brew acidic, and every new episode of dysfunction sours it further, poisoning the family and ensuring future generations will be just as messed up. This cycle must stop, and I yearn with every breath I draw to find a way to start over.

For now, in this moment, I must concede that the only way to start over is with each new moment, each new day, and each apology and admission of guilt or explanation I give the kids in the hope that they won't grow up and repeat my unhealthy behaviors. I also hope that, as I strive toward emotional and spiritual health, I will also demonstrate an increasing number of behaviors that enhance their ability to function as healthy people: to have fun and be frivolous, to believe in themselves because there is no legitimate reason not to, to take risks that might create a better life for themselves, to love vigorously and loyally, and to only accept vigorous and loyal love.

Oh, what I wouldn't give to break these chains, but the fact is I wouldn't know how to live without them should they all just fall immediately. They are safe and familiar. They were forged one link at a time, both by my parents when I was a child and by myself as I've built an adult life using the rules I was taught. Breaking them will only happen with the same slow process.

Repeat after me. SCWA.

Addendum: I owe many of my original realizations, and some of my continued recovery, to the book Repeat After Me, by Claudia Black. Anyone who finds themselves in similarly distressing and confusing situations should definitely give it a look. Dr. Black is a pioneer in studies of children from addictive and dysfunctional homes, and I honestly don't know what kind of mess my life would be without the intervention of a counselor and the realizations of Repeat After Me and other books, videos, and meetings I've needed to realize what was happening to me emotionally. I'm still a long way from being truly healthy, but I'm on the right path.
This one....................................not this one.
No infringement is intended on the book Repeat After Me, its cover, or the images of Claudia Black, Ph.D or the actress Claudia Black. Please email me should you have any issue with their being included in this post.

Friday, January 4, 2013

55: Priorities

She took entirely too long in the bathroom. As she slid into bed, looking gorgeous, smelling lovely, wearing her new lingerie, she began lightly touching my shoulder and neck. “I have a headache,” I lied. We kissed goodnight and she rolled over.

Finally, I thought, I could focus on my real interest: my Facebook games!
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FFF-55 Vol. XLVIII. Tell a story in exactly 55 words. Go see G-Man.