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41

Close-up of a chocolate-frosted cake with three lit candles.

Didn’t find a cake with 41 candles. Didn’t want to set my blog on fire. Photo: Wikipedia Commons http://bit.ly/1IDy3Hu

What a year. Now firmly ensconced in middle age, I found myself living the life of a 25-year-old, as I traipsed across the continent to start a new life as a graduate student in Fairbanks, Alaska. Many times, both before and during, I doubted my ability to pull it off. But so far, so good.

I’ve seen my writing career grow as publishing credits accumulate. It’s really a humbling sort of thing, to know that people want to read about you and learn from you. It gives me hope as I work through the beginning stages of my thesis, my first earnest attempt at writing a book. Writing gives me meaning in life.

The early forties are an odd time. Some of your peers are having babies while others are becoming grandparents for the first time. It’s always been a great regret that I could never get my life situated so that I could raise children. It was the one thing I wanted most out of life. But writing helps me to pass on what I’ve learnt to others, just as I would if I had children.

Despite the regret, I like my life. Sometimes I don’t feel like I do. Sometimes the conjoined twins of depression and anxiety knock me flat on my feet. Sometimes they do it literally, keeping me bedfast.

But I know I am loved. I know that I have people who care about me. I know that I ended up in the graduate program best suited for me. I know that I’m on a positive trajectory, even if that trajectory has speed bumps and pitfalls along the way.

 

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Erin Go Blah

Been awhile since I’ve written here. It’s certainly not because I’m not writing. Indeed, I’m working on essays and stories and the start of my thesis, on top of my schoolwork. This has become, I suppose, the space in which I write when I have something big and timely to say.

I’ve had my head bitten off before for bringing up this subject. I particularly don’t enjoy being figuratively decapitated, but if there’s anything I’m learning about writing, it’s the need to set aside ego in deference to the truth.

And the truth is this: St. Patrick’s Day is kind of sucky.

Chihuahua wearing a green St. Patrick's Day top hat, surrounded by four-leaf clovers.

And it sucks even more to be a pet on St. Patrick’s Day. Credit: Faith Goble via Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/grafixer/

Let’s take a good, hard look at how St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated. Read the rest of this entry

Potato Salad

So  I’m going to make a couple of confessions here. The first is that I never liked potato salad. The second is that I had never eaten potato salad until a couple of weeks ago. But it didn’t matter that I’d never eaten it; I was certain that it was simply terrible and I’d never touch the stuff.

A couple of weeks ago my friend Chris threw an impromptu party before heading off for an extended stay in Portland. I was the first to arrive at his place (a bad habit of mine, showing up early), and we hung out whilst he prepared for the rest of the guests. Chris had bought fried chicken from Cub Foods supermarket, which I was very happy about, since I love their fried chicken. He also set about making potato salad.

It looked vaguely like this. Photo courtesy Steven Depolo via Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/  CC License: http://bit.ly/1mhaR6e

It looked vaguely like this. Photo courtesy Steven Depolo via Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/ CC License: http://bit.ly/1mhaR6e

Read the rest of this entry

40

At this time ten years ago, when I turned 30, I had just moved to a new city. In the city I’d moved from, most of my friendships were pretty new. I moved very suddenly because I had to; my opportunities had completely closed up. So I settled into a big city to start a new life. The world was so big and fresh and wonderful. Life begins at 30, I declared.

Today I turn 40. I’m about to move to a new city. In the city I’m leaving, many of my friendships are pretty new (at least judging from my party RSVP’s). I am moving with plenty of advance notice because I get to. The city I have been living has opened up possibilities to move on. So soon I will be settling into a little town to start a new life. The world is so big and fresh and wonderful.

Life begins at 40.

When the Aints Came Marching In

Photo courtesy of Pete Miller via Flickr.com. https://www.flickr.com/photos/pmillera4/

Photo courtesy of Pete Miller via Flickr.com. https://www.flickr.com/photos/pmillera4/

I like baseball. I can’t say I’m the perfect fan – I don’t follow it the best in the world, and I don’t understand the finer points of the game. But I enjoy watching a game, especially live. As an American of a certain age, I think  it was unavoidable that I would have some connection to baseball. I remember when I was two or three, my mom bought me a little plastic Baltimore Orioles helmet (although I thought the logo was of Chilly Willy).

When I was older, I watched baseball on TV. Indiana doesn’t have its own major-league ball club, so we split our loyalties among the closest teams: the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago White Sox, and the Cincinnati Reds. Our local TV station aired the Reds, so that’s who I followed. Later, the station switched affiliations to the Cubs, and though Harry Caray was fun to listen to, I couldn’t really get into the Cubs. Read the rest of this entry

A Hard Man to Understand

I return from an extended – and unintended – hiatus. It was never my intention to be gone from this blog for so long. I had got wrapped up in the finishing touches of my undergraduate career. Three weeks ago, I completed my Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing. This is a milestone that, three years ago, I never thought I’d reach. And now I move on.

To Alaska.

I accepted an offer from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, and this August will be relocating to pursue an MFA in creative writing, with a focus in nonfiction. I am both excited and nervous as I move on to this new phase of my life, but I figure that’s typical of anyone making a major life change.

***

I’m not quite sure when my father died. I remember that his funeral was Memorial Day weekend, 1997. At the time I was in a haze of pharmaceuticals, intended to bring me down from what was believed at the time to be a manic episode but what is now understood to have been a severe anxiety attack brought on by the perils of trying to turn into a heterosexual within a homophobic environment. When I was 23, there was much I could not articulate to myself, let alone to the doctors, so they took their best guess based on the precious little information I permitted myself to divulge to them.

So, when I got the news that my father (whom I had not seen in five years) lay comatose in a Louisville hospital, I was already emotionally buffered by a medicinal regimen that had me sleeping sixteen hours a day. My aunt Joyce, whom I hadn’t seen since I was three, called one evening with news, flew me out to Louisville to see my comatose father. There, I met an entire side of my family who had had zero interest in my siblings or me until that point. They had to make a good showing of seeing their dying brother, even though several of them hadn’t bothered to tell their own spouses he existed.

What put my father into the hospital was tricky to unravel. Ostensibly, he had a heart attack, but the full story was more sordid. By all accounts, he had contracted an STD, and for treatment, he had obtained a topical ointment from the Amish neighbors his family has been friends with for decades. But my father, his mind muddled, took the ointment orally, which left him keeled over on the side of the road. Heart attack via poisoning. One of the teenage sons of the Amish family found him and arranged for an ambulance.

Thus I found him intubated in Louisville, surrounded by a family who had regarded him at best as a black sheep. My father was the only one out of the seven Baker siblings who was not sent to college; in fact, he was barely literate. Though I don’t know too many details, he was brutalized by his parents – my grandparents – growing up. As I’ve done some digging, I’ve discovered this abuse may have been a chief cause for his antisocial personality disorder.

I was once told that you can’t psychoanalyze dead people, but sometimes you don’t have a choice. My father was always resistant to treatment, because, as he put it, he was the only one in the world who didn’t have a problem. Yet when my mother, suffering a mental breakdown from his abuse, checked herself into the hospital, her doctor, after hearing my father rant a mere five minutes, deduced he had schizophrenia.

But, from all the digging I’ve done, I think that antisocial personality disorder is the most accurate diagnosis. First of all, my father seemed genuinely unaware of what a friend was, or how to make them. This affected my childhood greatly, since he didn’t allow me to make friends. When I was five, he bought me a dog because I was lonely, and when I was seven, he proposed that he and my mother adopt a child so that my siblings and I would have someone to play with.

He was also notoriously impulsive. In second grade, I came home from school one Friday to find that I was to get in the truck because we were taking a weekend vacation to Opryland. We kids crammed in the back, in the covered flatbed. When we got as far as English, Indiana, we picked up my maternal grandmother, who took the front seat whilst my mom joined us in back. The rest of the way to Nashville, my father cussed my grandma out in every way imaginable. We all crammed into our pop-up camper-trailer for the weekend. At Opryland itself, we didn’t do really do anything – my father ranted about the cost of concessions, so we didn’t eat or drink at the park.

On the flipside, he could be cold and calculating. When I was seven, I came home from school to discover that no one was there. This had never happened to me; there was always, at least, my mom and siblings. My father didn’t allow my mom to go anywhere but the grocery store, and he monitored the fuel gauge in the car to make sure she didn’t go anywhere else. I thought that my family had disappeared off the face of the earth and that I would be all alone in the world for the rest of my life. At seven.

They showed up an hour later. My father declared that he had just custom-ordered a brand-new Buick Park Avenue. (Custom-ordered mostly to get a Diesel engine, because my father, a truck driver by profession, stated that the only real automobiles had Diesel engines.) My mother was distraught; she didn’t understand how we could afford another car when we couldn’t afford groceries. She also didn’t understand why we couldn’t afford groceries. All she knew was that the grocery budget he gave her was getting smaller and smaller, eventually to the point that he no longer gave her money for food at all. She didn’t know that the money was going towards drugs and sex workers.

Now, this sounds pretty random and impulsive, right? To buy a car on a moment’s notice, when you aren’t exactly wealthy? Here’s the thing: he demanded that the car be put in my mom’s name. So, later, when he wanted to make himself look good to others, he would demonstrate his generosity by pointing out how he bought his wife a car, never mind that he forbade her to drive it. And if he wanted to make my mom look bad, he would tell people how she was wasting his money by buying a new car.

There were efforts at various points to get my father the help he needed. But antisocial personality disorder is notoriously slippery, for some of the reasons I mentioned above. As far as he was concerned, he didn’t have any problems, so he wasn’t about to pursue help for himself, even in the face of his obvious struggles in life. At one point, my mother, in fear of her life, had the police ambush my father when he came home from work, and they put him in jail for twenty-four hours for observation. But he was released on his own recognizance. They told my mother, “He’s high as a kite, but there’s nothing we can do about that.” And my mother, completely naïve about drug culture and possessing a singular grasp of the English language, had always thought the expression “high as a kite” meant “angry”, not “on drugs”. And when my father held up his fourth wife – the one after my mom – at gunpoint, he was put in jail for three months and then underwent a psychological evaluation. He was then released. He later told my mom, “They tried to put me away, but they didn’t know what they were doing. They had me checked out by a woman.” Implying that he knew his way with women, how to manipulate them to get what he wanted.

My mother barely escaped with her life when I was eight. My father (who, remember, was a truck drive and hardly ever home) was awarded temporary custody because he had a job and my mother didn’t. For six months he put us under the care of an estimated 20 random strangers. He offered a free home and generous pay to anyone who would take care of his kids. And he didn’t know any of these people because, remember, he had no idea what a friend was or how to make them. These were people he knew of second- and third-hand through work acquaintances and suchlike. Some were serious drug users who had no business around any kids. One couple had never been in a house with plumbing before, and didn’t understand how anything worked, including the thermostat, which they asked me to operate. I, at eight, thought you set the thermostat for the temperature outside, and we were going through a record-breaking heat wave. One was an eighteen-year-old with a one-month-old baby.

None of them were fit to take care of us, But they all quit as soon as they realized how dangerous my father was, he with the always-loaded pistol and the constant, very real threat that he’d use it. As far as my father was concerned, the only thing that mattered was that my mother not have any access to us, because that was the one thing she wanted out of life, and he was bound and determined to take it from her. After six months of this random, half-assed caregiving, my father broke his leg on the job, and “cared” for us the rest of the summer. I don’t want to say what all we kids went through because I don’t have the permission of my siblings to divulge some of what went on, and I likely will never get that permission. Suffice it to say that all four of us endured things no child should.

You would think the courts would have been more observant of what was going on with us kids, given the circumstances. But remember that my father “knew his way with women”. We were assigned a caseworker named Cecilia who was to come to the house once a week. And my mom warned Cecilia up front that my father would try to manipulate her, and would start treating her like his first wife Leila, who died in a mysterious motorcycle accident that many believe my father planned, but was able to slip through the fingers of the law by having the right last name in a small town. When Cecilia would come to the house, my father would ask her to make him a cup of coffee. And she obliged. And when the courts asked for follow-up on Cecilia’s observations, she merely stated, “Oh, he’s doing the best he can under the circumstances,” at which point she was dismissed from our case for loss of objectivity. She later confided to my mother that she was dead on, that my father was trying to turn Cecilia into Leila.

After nine months of divorce proceedings – intentionally dragged out by my mother’s attorney so as to get past my parents’ ten-year anniversary, thus qualifying us children for my father’s Social Security insurance – my mother was awarded custody. And my father began his slow drift from our lives. (At one point, he lived in Houston for five months without anyone knowing it.) He would drop by our home haphazardly, in bald defiance of the one-hour notification ordered by the court. He made such a stop one weekend towards the end of my high-school career. I was busy with extracurriculars that weekend, so I didn’t get to hear him declare that he didn’t love us kids and never did, that he thought he didn’t know how to love. It was probably the most honest he’d ever been.

The last time I saw my father conscious was at the beginning of my first year of Bible college in St. Louis. He showed up unannounced on campus with a hundred-dollar bill. (My father’s family only ever pays for anything with hundred-dollar bills. You cannot look poor.) He’d done the same after my high-school graduation, promising me a hundred dollars a month until I graduated from college. I saw the money three times total, the last being that visit the beginning of September 1992. That was the last I saw or heard from my father again.

The Amish family showed up at the funeral before the service began, but left before the actual funeral, because to stay would have been a violation of their faith. The only people at the funeral were his extended family; he died friendless. My aunt Joyce was selected to write his eulogy for the funeral director to deliver, because my father was the oldest and she was the youngest; thus, she knew him the least and was therefore the most likely to be able to say something positive about him. The best she could muster was that he was “a hard man to understand”. My father had grown so heavy, it took eight of us to carry his casket. When he was buried in the cemetery of Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church that Memorial Day weekend 1997, alongside Leila, his siblings remarked how odd it was that he was born on Veteran’s Day and died on Memorial Day weekend, yet never served in the military. The military was lucky to not have had him.

So, this weekend, as I am bombarded with the red, white, and blue of militarism, my thoughts don’t go to my culturally expected obligations to the relative location of the uterus from which I plopped, an obligation I will never understand. Instead, I think of the man who was hard to understand. I think about all the folks out there who need proper psychiatric attention and will likely not get it because of the red, white, and blue they plopped into at birth. And I think of how my goal in life ever since that weekend has been to be understood.

A Ghost Story

Today I went to the Minneapolis College of Arts and Design (or, as we call it here, MCAD, pronounced “Em-cad”). They have a fantastic little art-supply store called the Art Cellar for their students and the general public, and from time to time I pick up supplies there. As I walked down the hall of Morrison Hall, I felt the oddest sensation, a shudder, almost. And I’ve felt it every time I’ve walked that hall. Today I figured out what it was:

A ghost.

In September 2007, I attended their open house for prospective students on a lark. I didn’t know for sure if I wanted to pursue a degree there, but I was desperate for a change of pace in my life. As I toured their studios and classrooms and laboratories, I drooled over the possibility of attending. I would have the opportunity to create almost anything I wanted, trained by the best in their field.

And so I set about putting together my portfolio and application. I hadn’t drawn seriously in the longest time (and with my job and commute and ridiculousness from my roommates at the time, didn’t really have the time or space to do so). But I gave it my best shot. I filled out the application and made an appointment for a portfolio review. Though she wasn’t so impressed with most of my drawings, my mixed-media work intrigued her. Shortly thereafter, I received notice of my acceptance to one of the top art schools in the country.

And then I found out how much it was going to cost.

And I understood why most of the students come from wealthy families.

Maxing out every possibility for funding wouldn’t have even touched the bill. And so, with that, I let go of that little dream.

And now, every time I walk the campus, the ghost of another self from a slightly different universe accompanies me.

I’ve had some very good news in the past week from graduate schools to which I have applied for a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. (I’m not going to tip my hand as to the specifics just yet in such a public venue as this.) Suffice it to say that I will be moving from Minneapolis this summer after a decade of living here.

The question for me at this point is, will I exorcise all these ghosts before I leave?

The job opportunity I didn’t take.

The guy I didn’t ask out.

The apartment I turned down.

Will I leave these ghosts behind when I move away, or will they somehow find a way into my baggage?

Does it matter?

I like where my life is going. It’s been a remarkable turnaround from my lowest depths five years ago. My future is bright right now, and my present ain’t too shabby, either.

The pangs of what might have been may always stick with me. My brain always seems to be at every point of time except the present.

It’s up to me to graciously respond, “Yes, that would have been nice, but this is nice, too — and probably better.”

Friend Redefined

When you have an EMDR treatment, the therapist tells you that the memory you are reprocessing in therapy may come back to you a lot over the coming week, and that you should take that opportunity to continue thinking and processing, don’t resist the thought but just go with the process. My thoughts from my last session (detailed here) have left me pondering two interrelated ideas: abandonment and friendship. I’ve experienced a good deal of abandonment from numerous people throughout my life, and, partly as a consequence, I’ve had to constantly redefine what it means to be my friend.

Kindergarten was really the first time I ever met children my own age. And, so it seemed, everyone liked everyone else and  played with everyone else. It didn’t occur to me that there were kids who didn’t like me. (Imagine my shock when I worked in a daycare, and the three-year-olds cliqued off Mean Girls-style.)

But then I got to first grade, and everything changed. The children grouped up during recess, and I was left out. You see, I was the boy who played with dolls, thus violating the strict gender-segregation codes instilled in us by the pink-aisle marketing mentality. (I will say this for my parents–they let me shop in whatever aisle I wanted.) On occasion, a girl might let me play with her, but for the most part, I was a pariah.

At this point in my life, “friend” meant “playmate”, and I didn’t really have any. Sometimes a fourth- or fifth-grader would feel sorry for me and tell me, “I’m your friend,” but, of course, they didn’t play with me. Now I understand the vast developmental differences that justify why they didn’t play with me, but at the time their words sounded hollow.

In second grade, I developed a strategy. I would befriend “new kids” their very first day of school, before anyone could turn them against me. And I would have a playmate — until my friend moved away, which always happened, often in a few months’ time.

By third grade, with a sporadic history of playmates, I altered my definition of “friend” to “someone who doesn’t make fun of you to your face”. That was fully half my class. I had a lot of friends.

In fifth grade, it was “someone who sticks up for you”.

In seventh grade, it was “nobody”. What friends I had in sixth grade were not in my classes, and had taken an interest in girls.

In ninth grade, it was “people who spend time with you” — not far removed from “playmate”.

The line between “friend” and “enemy” blurred sometimes. Some of the members of my church youth group bullied me, but the youth pastor said it was because they liked me. And so I let them bully me some more.

In Bible college, “friend” meant “someone to whom I can entrust my secrets” — and I was carrying the biggest whopper of a secret: I was gay.

At age 29, it was “someone who stuck with me after I came out of the closet”. For a while, that was two people.

At 30, it was again “nobody”, as I pulled up stakes under duress and moved to Minneapolis.

It stayed “nobody” for two years. Then I randomly fell into a large circle of friends. And we spent a lot of time together. And we played games. And we would entrust our secrets to each other.

And along the way, I joined Facebook. I reconnected to friends I had lost along the way. As well as a lot  of acquaintances. But we don’t call it “acquaintancing” on Facebook. We call it “friending”. So in social media, the count of those who are considered my friend is artificially high.

But then, two years ago, I went back to school. For various reasons, I fell out of the circle of friends with whom I had spent time and played games and entrusted secrets. This hurt. I doubled down and focused on my schoolwork.

Now I look to relocate in a few months. And I find that my social life the last two years is nearly as bereft as it was my first two years in Minneapolis. I currently have some opportunities to develop new relationships, but it seems like a fool’s errand since I’ll be leaving them soon.

And I’m stuck wondering if this move will mean inventing a new definition of “friend” to tide me over until everyone leaves again.

Voyager

This morning was my weekly EMDR therapy. This is my treatment for PTSD. I feel like I’m drowning in initials, sometimes.

EMDR stands for “eye movement desensitization and reprocessing”, but the name is a bit deceiving. Originally it involved eye movement , but now it can involve any number of sensory inputs. For my treatment, I hold two small vibrating devices, one in each hand.

Basically, when someone undergoes severe trauma, their brain gets rewired to process sensory data differently, so they’re always on guard, hypervigilant. It makes the sufferer tense and anxious and worried pretty much constantly. In EMDR, the therapist goes back into the traumatic memories with the aid of the sensory input to undo some of the traumatic damage and make the patient’s life less tense — easier.

My description doesn’t really do the process justice. I’m making it sound like the therapist is minimizing the trauma, trivializing its impact. It’s not that. It’s more that it takes away the power that the traumatic event has had over you. It helps you overcome.

As I was going through my memories today, strangely enough, I kept coming back to scenes from Star Trek: Voyager. Of course, I’ve been running through the series on Netflix (just finished Season 2 Episode 12 a bit ago). But I also have recurring dreams set in the show, in which the Borg are attempting to assimilate the U.S.S. Voyager.

The ship of my dreams, literally. From http://memory-alpha.org

At first, I tried to pull my thoughts back to the memory I was supposed to be working on, but my therapist told me to just follow this train of thought and observe it.

And I flashed through all the characters on the show as if they were photos in a family album.

Family. It struck me that this is the appeal of the show for me.

If you’re not familiar with the show, a very simplified version of the plot is that the crew of a starship is hurtled halfway across the galaxy, and they are trying to get back to Earth with none of the support or allies they are used to having. So the crew all have to learn to rely on each other. And as the series goes on, the crew think of themselves more and more as a family, even using that word for themselves.

And it strikes me that this is a common theme in shows at the time. (Voyager ran from 1995 to 2001.) I came across a critique of the show Friends a couple of days ago. (If I have time, I’ll dig up the link later.) It decried the show for featuring the most self-absorbed characters in history, that their entire lives revolve around their immediate relationships, with no connection to the outside world.

I think the critic is missing the point. Like many shows that achieve a certain canonization in our culture, it depicts a fantasy. It gives its characters the very things we wish for in life.

And for a child of the Nineties (which is really more what I am despite the fact that I’m pushing 40), this idea of security in relationships means everything. We, the generation whose families broke up, whose parents may not have been around (in the same way they were so conspicuously absent in John Hughes movies and suchlike) craved some depiction of the comfort, safety, and love we so desperately wanted in our own lives.

I may well find myself back on the bridge of Voyager after I drift to sleep tonight. And when I do, I’ll see a reflection of the sort of connections I’ve always wanted in my life.

“Crazy”

I’ve been meaning to follow up my last blog post, because the incident has still left me with a lot on my mind. You see, the thing is, the gentleman caught me catching the bus on a Wednesday afternoon. If he had caught me on a Monday morning, I would have been indeed on my way to the “crazy clinic”.

I have a multitude of psychological impairments for which I have been treated for years, and which I have talked about with some regularity on this blog: generalized anxiety disorder, major depression, delayed sleep-phase disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. With the exception of the circadian-rhythm issues, these all came from having lived a less than easy life. There were a lot of bad things I went through as a child that left a permanent mark on my psyche. And I’ve been working diligently with medical professionals to erase that mark the best I can.

What if the gentleman had encountered me on a Monday morning? Who knows. I would most likely have changed bus stops, but I probably would have been in tears along the way.

I like to pretend that my disabilities are invisible, that you would just assume I’m healthy if you passed me on the street. This isn’t really the case, though. My disabilities leave me with tense body language and a hypervigilant engagement with my surroundings.

And some people, rather than observing such symptoms in a person and reacting with sympathy, instead erase them with words like “crazy”. Sadly, the mental illness known as lack of empathy is underdiagnosed in our culture.

I will not be erased. I will stand. I will stand for those unable to stand for themselves.