21 February 2015

My Mom, TheTragic Story of a Horrible Wonderful Woman

Mom holding me with my brother looking on.
So I was about 13 maybe 14 years old and walking down the street with a friend of mine after school and he kind of pokes me and asks, “isn’t that your mom?” On the other side of the street walking in the opposite direction is my mother and she’s having an animated argument — with herself. I don’t remember who the friend was but he had the discretion not to remark on my mother’s behavior. As it was I felt…actually there are no words over four decades later that I can conjure up to describe that feeling. The cliche is that you felt like digging a hole and crawling into it. I never really felt like that in those situations. I say situations because that was not the only such occurrence involving my mother that I suffered.

Anyway the moment passed. It always did. It had to. You can't dwell on that kind of pain. Not when you're young. You've got to move ahead, forget as best you can and live your life. After all she was going to be there when I got home. Maybe in the midst of a manic episode, yelling, cursing accusing. Or perhaps she'd be drunk, slurring her words swaying between overly solicitous and openly hostile. Then again I could luck out and she'd be fairly lucid just a little bit daffy and I could ignore her and pretend that I had a normal if somewhat eccentric mother.

How I despised her. She had robbed me of a normal childhood. She had taken away that safe harbor that should have been my home. The base from which I would gradually venture out into the world. It was forever ruined by this woman and her paranoid ravings at people who were not there.

My mother was posthumously diagnosed as bi polar. 

Starting as a teenager until I was in my 50’s I sat in various psychiatrist offices recounting life with mother.

A few years ago I forgave my mother. This was a posthumous pardon. Now I write about her all the time. And today for the first time I write: “I love you mom.” I also write her story.

Gertrude Marie Kurki was born on February 2, 1920 in San Francisco to Finnish parents. A few years later the family moved to Berkeley and a few years after her sister Mildred was born.

My mom grew up during the Depression but her father had steady work and they never wanted for anything. Mom once told me that “hoboes” sometimes came to the house for handouts and, provided they went to the back door, grandma would give them a bite to eat. Mom was an excellent, attentive student and participated in various school and church sponsored activities.

In the Fall of 1938 she enrolled at the University of California. Again she did well in classes and was a member of various clubs and organizations. She also attended football games and was a fan of the Cal football team from then on. She took me to my first Cal-Stanford Big Game in 1964.

Mom graduated from Cal in the Spring of 1942, less than six months after U.S. entry into World War II. She was accepted at Columbia University where she went on to earn a Master’s Degree in Speech. But before that she served her country in the women’s naval and coast guard reserves.  A trip home to Berkeley on leave in March of 1944 was noted in the local paper.

It was while in New York at the end of the war that mom met my father, Aimo Hourula. Dad was a native of Finland who had fought in the Russo-Finnish Winter War and then traveled the world in the merchant marines. Timing is everything, virtually all his time at sea was during the war and he was on two ships that were strafed by German planes and was at the helm of one that was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in the Arabian Sea.

My father had earlier met Mildred on the West Coast and, knowing he was based in New York where her sister was, she gave him her contact information. My parents had a whirlwind romance that culminated in marriage on the day after Christmas 1945 in Baltimore. Mom was 25 and Dad would turn 30 in a few weeks.

Nine months later they moved to Berkeley and stayed with my grandparent’s until they got a place of their own. Dad quickly got work as a carpenter, a trade he practiced successfully until his retirement 35 years later.

My brother was born in 1947 and I came along in '54. In those days a carpenter made fully enough to raise a family, especially as dad always had work. To my knowledge Mom never did anything with her university degrees. Mom was a housewife though she was also active in Ladies Aid through the Finnish American Lutheran Church in Berkeley that she attended. I don’t recall Mom being particularly religious, nor attending church regularly. That was more my grandmother’s thing.

Mom was also interested in politics and was a staunch Democrat who refused to read Hearst papers. I also recall that she was a poll worker during the 1960 election.

My mother was an attractive woman, with blonde hair, blue eyes and a slim figure. She was always healthy. I never remember hearing about her having any major illnesses or injuries. Through the mid 1960’s she had a wide circle of friends, many were kin of my dad others were old friends or relatives from her side of the family and still others were old classmates. She attended class reunions and regularly went out with my dad. They were forever going to one gathering or another, or out to dinner, or to parties or to ball games or camping or on ski trips. Mom danced, skied and enjoyed life. She was a chatty and articulate woman, opinionated but never overbearing.

She was a good wife and mother and housekeeper. Our place was always clean, there were always meals ready on time and she made a point to come into my room every night to put the covers back on me while I slept because I had a tendency to kick them off. I was aware of her doing this the last night I slept under the same roof as her, even though at the time her mind was quite far gone.

As I grew up, everything was great in our family, especially for my brother and my dad. My mom had started slipping away from reality not long after I was born. Maybe even before, it's impossible to say.  My brother and dad didn’t know a thing about it for another 12 years or so. I grew up with it. Well into adulthood I reckoned that I was somehow responsible for her insanity and even beyond that I was sure that the same fate awaited me.

One thing I’ve learned about being an abuse survivor is that people don’t believe you. My story is particularly hard to swallow. I never once told it to my brother or my father. I have thought many times about why I kept it to myself. I really don’t know why but I did. They’re both dead now and I’m glad I spared them the details. It wouldn't have done any good anyway, the shock they went through was enough. For my story of being the sole audience for so long of her ravings many doubts have been expressed,  even by some psychiatrists. I understand the disbelief. But its not my problem. I've flat out been told I must be mistaken. It's incredibly insulting but I've learned to shake it off. What can you do?

Mom and Dad in New York.
My earliest memories of my mother include her having angry arguments with people who weren’t there. Sometimes she was using a normal voice but just as often her voice became what can only be described as ugly. I never for a second thought that what Mom was doing was normal. But it also never crossed my mind to tell anyone. I just grew up with it. The good thing and bad thing was that she stopped once anyone else came home. To everyone else on the planet mom was perfectly normal. Unlucky me. No wonder I was so attached to my brother and father, they unknowingly protected me.

Her psychosis gradually grew worse and her rantings and ravings became more pronounced and more tinged with paranoia. I remember once when my father and brother were working up in Tahoe we were invited to my Uncle’s house for dinner. I think I was about 11 at the time. We had, as was generally the case at my Uncle’s a grand time. I had three female cousins who were like sisters to me. But when we came home my mother went ballistic. She screamed at me about how horrible “those people”  how much she hated them and that we were never going back. It went on for quite awhile and even though she was looking right at me I plugged my ears. Mom didn’t seem to notice. Another time she cornered me in my room and raged.  The words were coming directly at me though the intended audience was non existent. I finally picked up a shoehorn with a long strap and hit her with it on the arm. She stopped, looked at her arm and  after a few seconds continued. Another time I finally just screamed at her to shut up. This stunned her into silence. For maybe half a minute. Nothing I did stopped her. Only the arrival of another family member would make her stop.

It was at about this time that Mom added drinking to the mix, so to speak. Alcohol variously made her better and made her worse. But ultimately it made her unable to control the timing of her outbursts. Finally she acted out in front of my father and brother. I felt awful for them. By this time my brother had moved out and it was on a weekend he was visiting that he saw mom in all her horror. He cried himself to sleep that night. I don’t believe that as a child I ever cried about my mother insanity. It was just there.

My father was crushed. Especially when Mom moved out of their bedroom and refused to go out with him anymore. All those outings Dad enjoyed, he now had to go to alone. Mom even refused to go to her own mother's funeral. My brother pleaded with her to go. By this time I didn't care what she did.

Naturally we had to stop entertaining. When someone did come by there was the awful risk that Mom would emerge from her room and rant at them or at us or at the heavens. She also started spending money recklessly. My father's perfect American life was collapsing around him. He didn’t know what to do. Neither did my brother. Me? I loved my dad as much as any son has ever lived his father, but I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of the house.

When I did move out and go to college, Dad was left at home with a crazy wife. The first time I saw him after leaving home was at a soccer game I was playing in. He looked like an old man. My heart ached for him.

Eventually Dad faced the fact that his wife was not going to get any better. He started seeing other women. He met a divorcee who was about 20 years younger than him. She knew a good thing when she saw it and talked him into going to Reno for a quickie divorce followed by marriage to her. My Dad was married to her until his death.

Once I was away from mom I stayed away. I saw her occasionally but usually only when it was unavoidable. Once my Uncle invited her to Thanksgiving when my dad was out of town. To my shock she came. Mom got very drunk and started yelling at everyone. I had seen it coming and had gotten very drunk myself.  I still mark this as the worst day of my life.

Mom would call me over the years. I’d sometimes indulge her for a minute or two before begging off. If, as was often the case she was slurring her words, I hung up immediately. She left long rambling nonsensical messages on my answering machines. Every syllable she uttered made me wince in psychological torture. My acute hypervigilance to certain noises is directly linked to the sound of her voice during manic phases.

I avoided mom like the plague. My late brother was a saint and he looked after her until she died in 2001. Somehow she had lived to 81 despite all her drinking. Also, when Mom had totally gone off the deep end she had taken up smoking, which I believe she continued to the end. She used a long cigarette holder which to me made her look like a rather poor Norma Desmond impersonator.

My mother ruined my childhood and caused me irreparable psychological damage. But over time I came to understand that it was not her fault. Mom was mentally ill. You could no more be angry at a person for contracting cancer. She never planned to go crazy and the fact that for so many years she manifested her behavior just for me…well, I’m sure that the sane conscious part of her mind had nothing to do with that. Mom loved me. I know that. I was just unlucky.

I’ve been sorry over the years that I lost out on having a normal mother. But more than that I’ve been sorry that I lost out on that particular normal mother, the one who gave birth to me. My brother had a lot of fond memories of her that I quite envied I only got to know her a little bit. I would have loved to have heard more stories from her about the Depression, football games at Cal, my grandparents and also to have heard her share opinions on politics and cultural issues. I'm sure that had I had a normal relationship with her I might have avoided some of the trouble that marked the first half of my life.

The biggest loser was of course Mom herself. At some point in her life she became something like half of her real self with demons possessing the other half. And it got worse from there. Today bi polar disorder (if that is in fact what she had) can be treated with medication. Back then the best she could have hoped for was probably shock treatment, heavy drugs and perhaps institutionalization.

She didn’t have a chance.

I’ve always thought about my mother a lot. But it's different now (for Christmas I asked for a Columbia University sweatshirt which I received and wear everyday to honor her). When I think of Mom  it is not with anger or depression but with a yearning to have known a perfectly sane and sober version of her. It’s a hopeless, fruitless feeling. But its all I’ve got.

With great thanks to my friend Germano Maccioni who encouraged me to write this. Grazie.

19 February 2015

The Story of Seamus and How He Learned a Lesson

Seamus Mullins was caught cheating on his wife. Seamus felt bad. He had forgotten. About his wife. When he was with the other woman his wife became like a far off silhouette. She was nothing that he thought about — when he was with the other woman. Seamus would mention her but only to assure his lover that his wife was of no significance. In fact she was something of a pain. Seamus didn’t go into details.

Seamus was really good at a lot of things. One of them was compartmentalizing. For example when he was with his lover the rest of the world didn’t matter. Not his wife, not his children, not his job. Just her. When he was with his wife and children he gave them, to quote the Great Emancipator, the full measure of his devotion. It was the same with his job. Magically, Seamus kept one are of his life separate from all others. Thus Seamus felt no guilt about his affair because while he was with the other woman he thought of nothing else. Simple.

It should be obvious that Seamus had a sickness. Being caught cheating helped him start to see that. Oh you could say he was a lothario or philanderer or an adulterer. But those are tags, however accurate. It was more complex than that. Seamus had huge moral and ethical blind spots. He was so good at compartmentalizing that he could not imagine there was anything wrong in what he was doing. Indeed he only thought of his lover, the other woman, as Laura. In his mind she was in a completely different universe than his wife. His wife’s name, by the way, was Lori, and Seamus had so separated the two that the similarities of their first names never occurred to him. Seamus never arranged to see Laura when when he was with his wife or family or at work. And when he was with Laura he didn’t think about his family or work. Only her.

Seamus was caught when Lori’s sister — who had always thought very highly of Seamus (everyone did) — saw Seamus kissing Laura as he left her house. Coincidentally Lori’s sister knew Laura, though Lori did not. Lori’s sister immediately confronted Seamus, just as he was getting into his car. Seamus confessed everything. It was his only choice. In a strange way, Seamus was a very honest man. He never denied the world he was in. Lori’s sister had caught him in his affair world and Seamus could no more deny its existence than he could have denied having two legs.

Well, said Lori’s sister, you’re going to have to tell Lori. She’ll call me afterwards so I’ll know if you didn’t tell her. Then I’ll have to do it and I don’t want to. I’ll tell her, Seamus promised. I have to own up to what I did. I can’t face it myself if I don’t tell Lori. Lori’s sister wanted to know if he was going to end it with Laura. Yes, that world is over, he replied. Lori’s sister was confused by the answer but took it to mean the affair was over. Lori’s sister also decided that she’d right then and there go tell Laura that the affair was over.

When Seamus drove off, Lori’s sister went and rang Laura’s doorbell and told Laura that they’d been caught an it was all over. She wouldn't see Seamus again. Laura cried. Not because she was losing Seamus, but because she felt so awful about what she’d done. It had now hit home. Laura promised to stay away from married men. This was her second affair with a married man and it wasn't worth it.

Meanwhile Seamus went home. After a nervous dinner, a little TV and putting the kids to bed, Seamus sat down with his wife and told her about the compartment in his life that had closed for good — the affair. Lori was shocked. She was angry, hurt and wanted Seamus to explain why he’d had an affair. I don’t really know, he said, I’ve always been perfectly happy with you. It was just something I did, I guess without thinking. I’m not sure where my mind was when I was with her. I think I should go into therapy.

Lori agreed that therapy would be good for Seamus and also insisted that they go in for couples’ counseling. They’d need a process to help them get over this. Now was not the time but Lori would eventually have to confess to a one-night stand she had recently had with an ex boyfriend when she was supposed to have been visiting a cousin.  She'd felt terrible about it since the day after it happened and confessing would relieve that pain. It would all come out and their relationship would be stronger. Of this Lori was certain. She was also sure that if Seamus ever cheated on her again she’d get the best divorce attorney money could buy. But hopefully that would never happen.

Seamus went to therapy. He talked about compartmentalizing and different worlds and how it made sense in some ways — like not bringing home work or not bringing personal problems to the job — but could be quite bad in other ways as his affair had clearly demonstrated. Seamus had learned a lot about life and himself from the therapy sessions and as a consequence led a more fulfilling life. Seamus had learned that life can't be so easily sorted into categories. It's like trying to divide the water in rivers into sections.  His marriage had always been good but now it was better. He was initially upset to learn about Lori’s fling but given his own indiscretion, could not really complain.

Seamus had gotten a second chance. No more compartments. Seamus was a lucky man.

14 February 2015

Not Exactly a Valentine's Post - A Stranger Tries to Talk to Me in a Sauna, The Horror, The Horror

Seriously.

I finished a pretty good workout and headed for the sauna. For once no one was hanging their clothes in it, no one was exercising in it and it wasn’t super crowded. In fact there was only one other person perched there. I sat down an enjoyed a good relaxing sweat.

“It’s hot in here.” That’s what the other person said. In the sauna. To me. I’m of Finnish ancestry. My dad, who was born in the old country, built a sauna in our house. I know from saunas.The one at the gym is pretty weak as saunas go and by this I mean in large part that it’s never hot enough -- by a Finn’s standards. I’ve talked to a couple of Finns who don’t even bother with it because it insults their sauna-going sensibilities to sit in a lukewarm sauna. But to me its the proverbial better than nothing. So anyway I replied that it was indeed hot. I think the sum total of my response was, “yes it is.” Although I thought several other things such as: but not nearly enough; well, it is a sauna so, yeah; and please don’t start a fucking conversation with me.

I maybe should have said the last one because he soon thereafter asked, “how was your day?”  Oh for the love of god, I thought. “Fine,” is what I said and that was a strain. I’m really not into talking to complete strangers when it is not necessary. Like I said, I’m Finnish. My people don’t go around yakking to people we don’t know. We often go long stretches without talking to people we do know. Finns are generally pretty contented people but we leave in fear of strangers starting conversations with us.

There was a a few seconds of quiet and then this clown said: “we could talk if there’s anything you feel like talking about.” This was too much, this was ridiculous. This was a veritable affront. This was ruining my sauna. This was weird.  I sighed, I winced, I said, “No thanks,” and I confess to having said it curtly. “That’s cool,” he said. Awkward now. Seconds later three people came into the sauna at once. All I could think was, where the hell were you people like 30 seconds ago when motormouth felt like chatting?

The idiot didn’t bother any of them and in fact a half minute later exited. For the record he was maybe in his early thirties, fairly big, had a long thick head of hair a full beard but no mustache. I’ve never gotten the beard sans mustache deal. It looks like you started to shave the whole deal off, but were interrupted and never got back to it. Half measures.

I am happy to report that in the showers after the sauna no one tried to strike up a conversation. If someone had I might have shanked ‘em.

10 February 2015

Oh How Cute --The Neighborhood

Take a look at the Lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he'll ever know
He's in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?
David Bowie - Life On Mars?

It was what some would call a cute neighborhood. That is there are no grand mansions, nor even any large houses. Nothing ostentatious. Of course no urban blight. Just a lot of quaint houses where quaint families lived quaint lives. These are the kind of homes that nice young couples buy. They are bright professional people, perhaps teachers or nurses or designers. They are in their late 20s, recently married. Their days of sexual promiscuity are past. Their world travels with a backpack and camera are over. They’ve done much of the reading they’ll ever do and have started the process of settling into life. Philosophical discussions over wine and marijuana are giving way to PTA meetings with coffee and muffins. Their political views are tempered from the white heat of college when they were swept up into radical causes. Now their political expression comes in the form of buying locally and passionately recycling. They have a TV, but won’t risk getting cable for fear they’ll watch it too much. Most of their entertainment comes from their stereo and public radio. They like to dance still but only occasionally. They will soon have children. Two. With a midwife. Their diminishing social life will virtually vanish as they set about building their lives around their children. Weekends will consist of trips to the library and the YMCA, with children in tow. They’ll set up play dates for their children. Sign them up for youth soccer and violin or piano lessons. They’ll be active in their children’s education and will volunteer for school committees and field trips. They will love their children unconditionally and be regarded as good parents. They will attend weddings, and funerals, go backpacking several times a year, make it to Europe one Summer for a month. They will be respected at their jobs where they will receive promotions and accolades. The children will grow up to be fine students with 3.8 GPAs and modest success on school athletic teams. The boy will give up the piano, the girl will stick to the violin. The mother will suddenly and tragically contract pancreatic cancer at age 53 and die two years later. As the children head off to college the father will finally begin dating again although truthfully he’ll grieve for the rest of his life. At 60 he will remarry. At 80 he will be widowed again and himself in failing health will be put into a nursing home by his children who themselves are both married and live in similar nice neighborhoods. The house will be sold to another young couple just starting out.

It was this kind of neighborhood that I spent my first three years on planet Earth. There was a tot lot nearby where mother took me. Initially I just sat in the buggy and cooed at the clouds catching sight of an occasional tree branch and even -- oh goodness how exciting -- a bird in flight. As I began to gain use of my legs mother took me by the hand and we strolled about the park which took up one lot on the corner of McGee and Grant. (It’s still there.) As a two year old the park seemed impossibly large well past my capacity to explore. The swing was a particular delight it made me feel completely free  and wonderful and forever happy and attached to nature itself to fly heavenward and back. I laughed with delight but pumped my legs purposefully to add my own impetus to the affair.

I made friends in the park. I do not recall them but one -- I was told -- boasted American Indian heritage. Friendship was a cherished discovery. It offered greater opportunities for fun. Two and three could add a dimension of play to what one could do. I soon learned that above all else I enjoyed fun. It pushed away that nagging cloud.

That awful out of place cloud. That ruiner of everything. That menace that appeared from time to time. That ugly among the beauty. The spoiler. The reality the truth that I wanted to deny. That would not go away. Mom’s other side. That harsh angry inconsistent voice that came from my dear old mom but seemed from another source. A dark evil twisted one. Nurturing loving mom transformed into something obscene and unfamiliar. Not mom.

But the neighborhood. Was so nice. Masked everything it did.

Corporations are People Too -- As If!

“I looked as grateful as any boy possibly could, who was wholly uninformed why he ought to assume that expression.” - From 'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens

Isn’t this wonderful, Randy wanted to know.

It is wonderful, Krista affirmed.

Randy positively gushed about the cake being so very delicious.

Krista added that the champagne too was very delicious.

Freida noted how the decor was very festive.

Everyone agreed that it was indeed festive. Everyone was smiling broadly and chatting amiably and trading exclamations and encomiums and hosannahs for their employers who were throwing this wonderful celebration.

When the music started Randy confided in Gabriel that he thought the music befit the occasion. Gabriel readily agreed. There was no dissent at this occasion. There was no discussion. Dissent was unthinkable. But there was hob nobbing. A lot of it. Oh and mixing too. And mingling. No one was standing off by himself or -- it should be noted because we don’t want to offend anyone — herself. No one is to ever feel offended. That's a must. Avoid offense at all costs -- carry on.

The celebrants were all gay in the traditional sense of the word. Some were gay in the more modern usage of the world because that’s cool too. People of all stripes were welcomed and accepted and those differences were never mentioned. The only requirement was that one must wear very happy face. Happy faces were a must.

For example there was no talk of any recent unpleasantness. It was like it never happened. Minds had been white washed of the event anyway. Why dredge up events from the distant past of last week? What's done is done. On that everyone could agree. Could indeed.

This occasion had even inspired a song of celebration to be written. The song was  drilled into everyone’s heads. It was a catchy tune with cute lyrics and a simple fun beat that everyone would happily have stuck in their hands. What fun to have a jingle all their own.

But…

It was Ramona who finally asked Randy why this occasion merited a celebration. This was typical of Ramona, she was forever asking questions. This tendency often put her at odds with others who knew that going along for purposes of getting along was the best practice. Indeed the only one. Questions from outsiders were to be dealt with. Politely. Quickly. Efficiently. There was to be no muss or fuss here. Questions, of course, could lead to much mussing and fussing.

Randy responded to Ramona’s question with a dismissive shrug. Randy was the head honcho and was used to parrying ill conceived or ill timed questions. Ramona was a smart cookie and got the hint. She went over to get another glass of champagne and vowed to keep her trap shut.

Meanwhile Frieda and Gabriel were having a similar conversation. They were trying to sort out why they were at work after hours drinking nice champagne and eating nice cake and hearing nice music whilst having nice conversations. Somehow it didn’t make sense.

Frieda decided to ask Randy. This was a bold move for Frieda who was used to toeing the company line. Her toe was forever on that line and had never before deviated. But sometimes people will drink too much champagne on such occasions and instead of being a little bit silly will get a little bit too bold. Also their minds might start exploring. That’s a danger in certain environments. Like this one!

So finally Frieda walked over to Randy who was standing proudly (no one could say for sure what he was proud of, least of all Randy himself) with a huge grin on — where else? — his face. And what Frieda did was to ask Randy what it was all about. And was the reason worth the time and expense.

Poor Randy. He couldn’t just dismiss Frieda with a shrug. She was his second in command. This was a serious situation. Especially when Krista and Gabriel sauntered over because they were suddenly curious about what Frieda and Randy were talking about.

But Randy had been trained in such matters. It’s why the big bosses had hired him. They knew they could count on him to be totally facile in any and all circumstances. Originality replaced by banality. It was practically a corporate motto. Sure enough Randy came through. “Pufghitle motince erp loobykoss minefredy,” Randy said.

Everyone nodded and smiled. Nodded and smiled. Now it was unclear. Now they didn’t know. Now they could truly pretend to enjoy themselves. There's nothing like ignorance when you think you know something but don't know what you know. It was like they’d been administered an anti depressant. A warm wave of vapid beige spirtlessness washed through them.

The party went on for another 15 minutes. Someone did the twist. It was funny.

Time to go.

The custodian would clean up.

Everybody went home.

Tomorrow they'd talk about what fun they had.

More Xanax, anyone?

08 February 2015

Life ... is a Tale Told by an Idiot



“O, full of scorpions is my mind!” 

― William Shakespeare, Macbeth

The lesbian spit in my sandwich.

I swear she did.

It was lunch time I had nothing to eat and was out running errands. I popped into Whole Foods and went over to the deli counter. I took a number and waited. The number was 47. I couldn’t immediately think of a ball player who wore that number.

There were three people taking orders. One was a young man who was very young handsome in a totally unmasculine way. He could just has easily have been straight or gay or one of those nouveau kind of guys who doesn't identify his sexuality in any such traditional manner. Another server was a cute woman with really short hair and boobs that bounced. She was a cute fresh faced free spirit who probably had some huge hunky boyfriend. She wouldn’t be working at a deli counter for long. Probably an environmental studies major at the university who’d be living and working in the far north of California in a year’s time. Living with the hunk. The third server was a chunky little lesbian who looked as much like a 12 year old boy named Butch as she did a woman of a 22 ,which is what she probably was. She strode around with the physical grace of a boxer.

The number was on 41 when I pulled mine so I had a few minutes to study the servers and some of the yokels who were waiting with me. There was a portly middle aged guy who should have been getting a salad but was probably there for the lasagna. There was a young mother with her two year old who was whining up a storm and there were some nurses from the nearby hospital and non descript college students on a study break.

I had a one in three chance of getting the cute woman as my server so my hopes weren’t high. Sure enough the number 47 was barked out by the lesbian. I have no negative history with lesbians other than perhaps that I once dated a woman who was trying to deny to herself that she was one. Dating me evidently confirmed the truth of her identity. I’ve come to despise the fact that some lesbians hate men. Really? Not a skin color, a religion, an ethnic group but a gender? You do realize that’s roughly half the population. Wonder how that works out for you to hate so many people. I’ve always wondered how they get a pass on that. Like black who hate white people. It’s often related to you by someone with a shrug and a wink. Yeah my uncle hates white people. Or Sharon hates men. Well fuck them. Why is that not roundly condemned? Why act like its cute or excusable or even understandable? Hating people based on how they were (hey, I didn’t choose to be a white, straight, male) is one of the ultimate forms of bigotry no matter who you hate and should be roundly condemned. Anyway so a few lesbians I’ve known of hate men and that’s totally uncool but for the most part lesbians are fine with me and why should’t they be. Live and let is the way I look at. As for gay men well I grew up in very homophobic times and initially hated the very idea but when a distant cousin and early hero and role model of mine turned out to be gay I came to see that sexual preference is no basis for judging a person. That cousin and another gay friend died of AIDS and I’ve had made co-workers and friends before and since who were gay and its just the way of the world and I hate homophobia and AIDS with a passion.

But I swear this lesbian spit in my sandwich.

I ordered — very politely, it’s the way I was raised — a tuna on rye with everything, — no cheese — and dijon mustard, please. She was actually sweet kid and happily took my order. I don’t usually watch people prepare my meal whether it’s a sandwich in Berkeley or three course meal in Italy. To me it destroys the mystery. I like the magic of asking for something and moments later it suddenly appearing in completed form.

So I didn’t see the spit. I didn’t even hear it. You could say I imagined it.

Hey I don’t just imagine things for no reason. My mind doesn’t make up stuff out of thin air that I later think is real. There’s a basis. So when I imagine that someone spit in my sandwich they damn well did.

The question is why would someone do such a thing? Was it a former student who I’d failed? No, there’d been a hint of recognition on my part and it would have been too long ago for her to hold a grudge. I think. Was she the type of lesbian who hates men and finds ways to sabotage them? No, because then she’d be spitting left and right and would have been caught by now. Was there something about my appearance that she hated? Maybe I reminded her of something or someone? Could be. This was not a day I was wearing a dress shirt and tie and sport coat. Nor was I wearing a sweatshirt or tee shirt that boasted a team that she might not like. I had a bulky coat and a blue long sleeve shirt on and my pants she couldn’t see.

I was stumped.

I know, I know. There’s no real reason to think that she spit in my sandwich. I just convinced myself that she did. With the other woman, the cute short haired straight girl, I’d have invented her having a crush on me (could have happened) and with the guy I wouldn't have thought a thing and would have focused on my iPhone. Maybe some latent hatred against lesbians was coming out. Maybe it was the week’s worth of pain and codeine and the root canal and the co-worker being fired that had my mind a wee bit off. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

I’m telling ya I know she did. There was that moment I heard what sounded like a soft spit. Not a hawked loogey but a definite spit coming from behind the deli counter. I happened to be looking at a display of chips at the time but when I heard the unmistakable sound of spittle hurtling through the air. I looked up and there was something clearly amiss. People were shuffling around awkwardly as if they’d seen something they shouldn’t have. There appeared to be embarrassed looks on the face of the other two servers. The lesbian looked somehow guilty as she began to wrap up my sandwich. She noticed me and smiled but it seemed phony as hell. I wasn’t buying it. I looked at the other customers and I swear they looked away. I looked at the other two servers and they acted busy.

Here ya go, she said and handed me the fouled sandwich. I asked if I paid at one of the check out counters and the guy — for some reason, I mean why him, I asked my server — confirmed that I did. This was some way of him covering for her.

I took one of the bags of chips I’d been staring at headed for the check out. Should I report the spit? To who? What would I say? I had no evidence. I could open up the sandwich but if the lesbian was an experienced food spitter there wouldn’t be a big blob. Especially with tuna fish the spit would have just blended in. I’d just have to pay and get out. I think the person I paid knew what had happened. She was just acting too cool about giving me a receipt, offering me a bag and wishing me a nice day. It was too something the way she did it all. She might have been in on the spit. Maybe she was a lesbian who didn't like a lesbian. Who knows.

From Whole Foods I took care of my last errand then headed home. I thought about sports on the way home. I thought about how it was going to rain soon. I thought about my weekend plans. I didn’t think about the sandwich. I got home and put stuff away and settled in front of the TV set with my lunch.

Actually the sandwich was pretty good. But I have to wonder....

07 February 2015

Fifty Years Ago Was Basically A Lot Different -- You'd Be Surprised

The phone rings. Someone gets up to answer it.

There’s a knock on the door. Someone gets up to answer it.

That’s so 50 years ago.

Today a phone rings and you’re just as likely to be miles away from home and you can see who’s calling and if you don’t feel like answering you let it go to voice mail.

Today a knock on the door arouses immediate suspicion. Someone may warily get up and try to discern who’s there. It is, after all, likely to be someone selling something or a perpetrator of a bogus scam (actually I suppose all scams are bogus). But flinging your door open just doesn’t happen.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog how I used to walk to school when I was a child. I mean child. Like eight years old. And not just a couple of blocks either. This was about a seven block walk. I was never abducted. Or even harassed. Today kids are dropped off. Then they’re picked up. After which maybe they’re taken to a play date or piano lessons or soccer practice or yoga or archery or tai chi or god knows what else. Anything to keep the little buggers occupied.

Everything is organized and safe. Kids go for bike rides with their parents and wear helmets. We used to go on our own without helmets. We survived. We also organized our own games whether it was baseball, basketball, tackle football in the mud or a rock fight.

We figured a lot of stuff out on our own because there were no adults hovering around us telling us what to do. We were self reliant. We had time to think, to day dream, to just be.

We somehow managed without computers. Can you imagine. Life without google. We looked stuff up in books. We had less data at our finger tips but were more self reliant. Instead of computer games we played board games.

When we went to a sports event there weren’t huge scoreboards to occupy our eyes and ears. There weren’t ancillary activities going on. There was no rock music blaring when the action stopped. There weren’t giveaways or constant distractions. We watched the goddamned game. For food at games the choices were pretty much just hot dogs, peanuts and a few kinds of soda. There were no nachos or sushi or crab cakes. Yeah maybe a chocolate malt but not fancy sundaes. Come on.

We went to theaters to watch movies. There was always a double and sometimes a triple feature. They were not preceded by commercials — that was for TV at home. There were trailers, sure, but also cartoons and maybe a short of some kind often a travelogue. On Saturdays many theaters had programs especially for us kids. We walked to the theater.

Back then people were put in jail not incarcerated. You were a drug addict not someone with a substance abuse problem. Men were accused or wife beating not domestic violence. They might also be accused of rape, not sexual assault.

Dogs roamed free and no sane human being followed them picking up their crap. It was fairly common to step in dogs shit.

Shoelaces were forever snapping. I hated that.

There were no homeless people. Just tramps and bums.

There were serious anti war and anti draft protests. People weren’t wasting time sitting in trees or in front of post offices and no one was wearing a silly mask and there were no goddamned anarchists usurping legitimate protests to needlessly and stupidly break storefront windows.

The gap between the rich and poor was huge but not quite a national embarrassment. There was even a thriving middle class and strong unions that were effectively able to maintain decent working conditions and living wages for workers.

There was a sense and there was even empirical evidence that African Americans were getting better pay, better educations and a fairer shake in the country.  The achievement gap was shrinking not increasing.

Sometimes opposing factions in the U.S. government were able to compromise and they even occasionally worked for the betterment of the American people rather than to please their base.

You could get on an airplane without being treated like a potential terrorist. We didn’t really give terrorists a second thought.

People made sure their children got vaccinated and only a major idiot would even think not to.

Politicians didn’t kowtow to religious groups. There was a semblance of a separation between church and state.

Patriotism was restrained and displayed mostly by voting and participating and not by introducing flags to every public event under the sun.

Women and gays were in much worse shape. Hell I didn’t even know what homosexuality was until junior high and I never met a self identified gay person until early in high school and didn’t personally know a gay man until I was 17.

Cigarette smoke was everywhere. People smoked in movie theaters, sports stadiums, on busses in bars and restaurants, in offices and airplanes. You couldn’t avoid it if you tried.

There were a lot more small businesses. There wasn’t any Walmart or Walgreens and fewer other chains driving the little guy out.

The U.S military used to be in Far East Asia killing and getting killed. Now its the Middle East. So that's not so different.

Healthy food was cheaper than today but we had a lot less awareness about what was good and bad for you. There were fewer options including less variety of restaurants.

People weren’t forever grabbing things. Like nowadays people grab lunch or grab some papers. I even heard someone say they were going outside to grab some sun. Also people never used to say no worries. I hate the phrase no worries. It's rarely said when I have even a single worry.

Medicine has advanced quite a bit and recovery time from injuries is a lot faster. Then again pharmaceutical companies are making off like bandits these days. I suppose because they are.

Consumer protection was beginning to be practiced and there was starting to be government protection against industries that were polluting and no one complained that this was an infringement of rights. It was considered common sense.

Liberal wasn't a dirty word.

If you wanted to hear a song and didn't own the record it was on, you had to wait for it to be on the radio. You didn't carry your music library around with you. You also couldn't just watch any movie you wanted to at any time. If it wasn't in the theater, you hoped it would be on TV and when it was you watched it eviscerated by commercials. Today is way better when it comes to music and films.

Speaking of TV. We had five channels and later a sixth. What the hell was cable? Plus we didn't have a color set until I was in high school. This was not unusual. Also there was no recording shows. If you missed it you waited for a re-run.

Anyway, you can’t go back. And if you can, there’ll be all that smoke. 

28 January 2015

Time Overlaps - Dad and I on a Saturday Afternoon Many Years Ago as if Now, Maybe it is

“Each moment is the fruit of forty thousand years. The minute-winning days, like flies, buzz home to death, and every moment is a window on all time.” 
― Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel

Eight years old in the backyard on a Saturday morning winning imaginary World Series for the Giants or Rose Bowl for Cal or perhaps re-winning World War II for the Allies. My father appears on the back porch and says he’s going to the hardware store do I want to go with him. By way of answer I’m in the truck before he finishes the question.

Sitting high up in the cab of the truck next to Dad makes me feel impervious to anything the world could dish out. We ride towards downtown with the radio on, a ball game being broadcast. Dad smells like fresh lumber. He always does. Never like sweat or dirt no matter how hard he’s worked. He's a carpenter and can build or fix anything. In my mind he builds houses single handedly. We talk — as usual — about everything, anything, nothing. Dad tells a story from being a kid himself, in Finland and another of his sailing days. I share my mad dreams of a great future.

When we get to the hardware store I follow dad wherever he goes. The store itself bores me to tears but I’m with my old man so all is right in the world. He sees someone he knows. Dad introduces me as if I am someone of great importance, not just some snotty little kid. (It was always like this with my Dad. It makes quite an impression on a child to be treated like an equal among grown ups. I wasn't just part of the scenery or a novelty but another living breathing human being who just happened to be much younger than the other people. Also my father didn't keep secrets from me. As soon as I was old enough to handle the truth of something he flat out told me. When I was little I just thought that he stayed in Buenos Aires for six months during his time as a merchant marine. But as a teenager Dad told me that the reason he stayed for six months was that he shacked up there with a woman. Well it was the truth so why not tell me. That's the way Dad looked at things and that's why I've always leveled with my own children.)

So Dad completes his transaction at the hardware store and as it's near lunch time we head down toward the Berkeley Pier for lunch. It's a treat to go out to lunch with Dad. Mom and my big brother are somewhere else so it's just us. I've got the old man to myself. This makes me feel special. Dad has a way of making both my brother and I feel -- at various times -- as if we're special. I guess cause he figures we are. When someone treats you like you deserve good things it makes you feel all warm inside and worthy of any fortune that finds you. (I went on to take some bad bumps and almost ruin my whole life a few times but one thing that got me through was that Dad believed me and I wanted to live up to his faith.)

After lunch we watch the fishing boats come in. Again, not my idea of great time but I'm with the old man so safe from all the harm and cares of the world. He talks to some of the men coming off the boats, many of whom he knows, and arranges to go fishing the next weekend maybe with me in tow. "Okay sonny boy," he says at last, "let's get going."  We head to the truck and the drive home.

I resume my imaginary backyard heroics and dad disappears back into the house. Big brother comes home and obliges me buy tossing the football. It's cool to have someone slinging the ball to me, especially since my brother is a strapping lad six and a half years my senior. He's way up in high school and has a deep voice and reads big books and knows a lot of new stuff. Owing to our age difference there's little competition between us. I'm sure he resents me a little bit since I can be such a monumental brat and one who's been spoiled by the old man more than he's been. But most of all big bro is protective of me and proud of my spirit, guile and unabashed sense of humor. That means a lot to me too. I've got these really neat older males looking out for me. You can't beat that.

Now we all gather around the dining room table to noisily and quickly inhale a meal. There isn't a lot of chitchat, just noisy smacking and the clatter of utensils and plates colliding. After dinner we sit around the TV in time for Jackie Gleason and plenty of yuks. I struggle mightily to stay awake long enough to watch Have Gun Will Travel too. I doze a little toward the end of the program.

I'm only be pretending to be sound asleep when Dad carries me to bed. I like the ride. Mom tucks me in and I quickly fall into a deep contented sleep.

26 January 2015

When a Working Man Could Beat the System, A Memory of My Dad

I sometimes show half the students in a class a short film scene. The others wait in the hall. Then they come in and the students who watched the scene describe it to them. Then I have the students who were outside explain the scene as it was told to them. Finally we all watch the scene together. We then switch with the first group that was in going out and those who were out watching a different scene repeating the process. It's a good activity for ESL students.

Today I, not for the first time, used the famous steadicam shot from Goodfellas (1990) in which Ray Liotta’s character Henry Hill takes his date, played by Lorraine Bracco, winding through the Copacabana’s kitchen to where they ultimately get a choice table up front. Hill greases the wheels the whole way dishing out big tips to whoever he sees.  I’ve watched the scene many times but on this occasion it brought back memories.

There’s a popular seafood restaurant in Berkeley called Spenger's that was the place to go when I was growing up. It was always packed and the wait for tables was well over an hour on weekends. As a consequence they made a fortune at their bar where customers cooled their heals until their table was ready. My dad was a regular at Spenger's and, although he could be tight with a penny in some ways, was always a generous tipper. He got to know some of the waiters on a personal basis and even did some carpentry work for one of them.

We never waited for a table.

We’d go there on a Saturday night when the wait was as much as an hour and three quarters. Spenger's had a take out section adjoining the restaurant. We'd go in there and dad would lead us through a side door and into the dining area. He’d catch the attention of a waiter and we’d snake our way to the bar. After five, ten minutes tops the waiter would find us and lead us to a table. I always thought that it was about the coolest thing in the world to get a table while all the suckers had to wait. On top of that we got first rate service, sometimes drinks were comped or the wine or appetizers and of course my dad left his usual humungous tip. I think what was especially nice about getting the royal treatment was that we weren't royalty or rich. It's like we got away with something, we were getting treated above our station and it may have technically been unfair but -- come on -- we weren't initiating a global financial crisis or taking money out of the poor box.

Those were different times. My father was a carpenter back when one salary could support a family. Mom was a housewife, we had a car and a truck, owned our own place and never wanted for anything. My dad was a working class stiff who could afford to go on the town with his wife or with friends. Men had fat wallets with big loads of cash in them. Nobody was paying for anything but gasoline with a lousy card. There were no ATMs. You made sure to hit the bank before it closed or you knew a place to cash a check. Men's pocket's jingled with change. Hell, you could actually buy something with coins then.

My dad was doing all right. Especially for someone who came from rural Finland. He had plenty of friends and even relatives, including a brother, to work and play with. There was no swagger among them, just a great sense of fun. Their chests would be puffed out a little after showering and putting on clean clothes at the end of a hard day’s work. They felt good about themselves and having the freedom and wherewithal to go out and spend some of their cash. Most, like my old man, could hold their liquor. Most, again like dad, would flirt harmlessly with pretty women, but would never philander no matter how much they might boast about their success with the ladies. They were great kidders and enjoyed as many belly laughs as possible. The humor was never mean spirited nor too raunchy. They could wax philosophical about politics, work, family or keys to happiness, but never dug into religious or existential questions. Sports was always a frequent topic of conversation.

My dad never thought of himself as a big shot. That would have been a form of self inflation that he didn’t believe in. He spoke admiringly of guys who were and looked forward to the day that I was a big shot. (I don’t think I ever qualified as such in my dad’s eyes but he didn’t love me any less as a result.) You don’t hear the term big shot much anymore. Nor do people work for an outfit. I was always hearing things like: "he’s a big shot for some outfit in San Francisco….” Being a big shot didn’t cut much ice with my dad if you weren't a decent fellow. He knew plenty of big shots who were jerks. The important thing for men was to be "a real gentleman."
Dad, like his cronies and kin, liked going to restaurants and loved going out on the town and loved to have parties and to go to football games, baseball games, track meets, ice hockey, soccer and basketball. They went hunting, fishing, camping and out on boats. It’s exhausting to think how they never sat still. Weekends, holidays and vacations were packed and this on top of solid 40 hour work weeks. Often there was overtime to boot. These were men who didn’t believe in phoning in sick even if they were on life support. They simply showed up. (This is an ethic that I’ve ascribed to and I’m constantly amazed at how many people I work with do pretty much the opposite.) All this on top of maintaining their own homes which always had something that needed fixing or adding to. My dad was a perpetual motion machine, which is largely why he lived to be 92 and would still be going if it weren't for an accident.

Another thing that comes to mind is how revelry was not reserved solely for weekends. If someone’s birthday fell on a weeknight the celebration was not delayed. It was not out of the ordinary to go to my uncle's house -- for example -- for a cousins’ birthday on a Tuesday night. For that matter we’d go out sometimes on a school night just to visit. Occasions were taken advantage of but not required.

Today people have TV shows recorded and movies shipped to their homes and computers to stare at and iPhones with which to send messages and photos and videos (some people still use them to talk with too). And they can always Facebook and Instagram. The personal touch has largely gone missing.

It was a hurried life but I don’t remember people complaining about it or being stressed with how hectic everything was. No one bragged or complained about being busy. They were glad for the ceaseless activity and anyway that's just the way it was. To live a sedentary life was unthinkable. There was too much to do. Although it was unconscious, a lot of it was because they'd come through a war alive and nothing was ever going to be as trying as that. Some aspects of all this were unique to Finns, but a lot of it was that generation. They'd come out of the war and before that the depression. Eking out a living had been difficult and now hard work was actually rewarded with a good living. There wasn't the cynicism that's prevalent today. There was also the sense that problems could be solved and the government was an actual source of strength and not an embarrassing place of non stop bickering.

Of course memories are selective and I was just a kid then and I’m leaving out of this narrative the whole business of my mother’s insanity. The Cold War had everyone a bit nervous and Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement  and the Hippies were creating some unease for the older generation just as the protest and counter culture were inspiring us kids.

Anyway I got to all this by remembering beating the system at Spenger's. You know as I think of it, it seems symbolic. Here was democracy at work. My old man, the regular joe who worked his tail off, could beat the system. Not because of being "somebody" with influence. He tossed some bills around, sure, but that was cash he worked hard and honestly for and besides it was as much about the relationships he built with the waiters as the dough. It's nice to think that a guy like my dad could be a big shot sometime.