Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Things I Can’t Change

A while back, while I was visiting my father Mohammed in hospice, I went downstairs to get a cup of requisitely stale coffee. While drinking it in a requisitely depressing communal area, I looked up and saw a poster for alcoholism treatment. Naturally, I thought of my once-robust father, lying shriveled and vulnerable in a bed upstairs.

Now, if you’re wondering, with a name like Mohammed, if he is Muslim you’d be right. If you’re also thinking, “Well, that’s strange. I thought Muslims didn’t drink.” you’d also be right.

I have no reasonable explanation for this. But the facts are that my father Mohammed is a Muslim and he was an inveterate, unrepentant, raging alcoholic throughout my entire life.

Staring up at the hollow hope of the poster above me (“If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol, you are not alone.”), suddenly Christina and a certain fateful day popped into my head.

On the day in question, fifth grader Christina, the class Cool Tough Kid who’d once brought in not only cigarettes and a bottle of peppermint schnapps but also a half-used packet of birth control pills, was holding court in the playground, surrounded by her usual gaggle of awed ten-year-old groupies.

“My mom is in AAA,” she informed us with the preternatural weariness of a young kid who already knew what Alcoholics Anonymous was at age ten, regardless of the incorrect acronym she was using.

“What's AAA?” I asked, repeating the triple A’s.

“It's when you admit you are powerless over alcohol and that your life is unmanaged,” she parroted, not really nailing the organization’s credo but coming admirably close for a fifth grader.

I nodded.

“She’s a slut too,” Christina continued, sanguinely enough to assume that she didn’t really know what “slut” actually meant. “She has sex a lot because she’s powerless over addiction. That’s why she’s in AAA.”

AAA was a course I hadn't yet taken at the School of Sad, Disturbing Childhoods but I was quite the assiduous student of much of its other varied and intensive curriculum: Vicious and Dehumanizing Verbal Abuse 101; a rigorous master class in Moderate to Severe Physical Abuse and Are They Bipolar; Manic-Depressive or Just Indescribably Nuts: An Intensive Case Study. This AAA of which she spoke was an extremely intriguing prospect, seeing as I was already fluent in many, many other aspects of alcohol “unmanagement.”

Also, I understood her decided air of boastfulness. If you had a crappy childhood, you better believe you were going to try to get some tough kid cred from it. Years later in college and even beyond, kids from “normal” homes with "normal" parents studied disaffection, nihilism and tortured malcontent like American tourists in Ho Chi Minh City, with an outdated map. We were the real deal.

But whereas Christina trumpeted it, I hid it. In my family, secrecy, silence and shame were terms of the contract into which every member of my family had long ago wordlessly entered. Incidentally, Secrets, Silence and Shame must be the name of a nineties-era Lifetime movie.

After the bell ending recess had rung, I approached Christina. Haltingly, I told her my problem. My father was indeed Powerless over alcohol and his life was “unmanaged” to the point where he knew every variety of gin but couldn’t seem to remember any of his three children’s birthdays. And he was most certainly a slut. My mother said so although she also said that he’d step over a hundred naked women to get to a drink.

“If he goes to AAA, he'll be all better,” Christina assured me. Probably more for herself and her own Powerlessness Over a Mother given to her by the entirely capricious, often cruel genetic lottery that chooses for us our parents. In her case, she was given a mother who once left her in a freezing car for four hours in the middle of winter while she “sobered up” at a bar.

Soon after, I secretly began gathering as much information on AAA as I could. Pre-Internet, this proved very difficult. As much as the Internet is responsible for the now irreparable lack of understanding the difference between an antecedent and a possessive and people who can't eat meals without taking pictures of them first, it really could have helped me back then. Not only in the sense that I could have found community online and not have felt so alone, I could have easily discovered what, exactly, AAA was.

Still, I managed to collect a sizable amount of information, mostly in the form of pamphlets. These, I hid surreptitiously under my mattress. In our house, Secrets, Silence and Shame went hand in hand with Denial of Glaringly Obvious Dysfunction and when any contractual rules were broken, punitive measures were taken.

About three months after my AAA recon mission had begun, I was in a car driven by Mrs. Newfield, my most “normal” friend Jenny’s “normal” mother. We were on our way to walk aimlessly around the mall, try on clothes both of us were too chubby to fit into and then head to the food court to eat our feelings while Mrs. Newfield shopped. Suddenly, the car thumped into a flat tire.

As we pulled to the side of the road, Mrs. Newfield turned to Jenny.

“Go into my purse, honey,” she said. “And get my Triple A card.”

As Jenny pulled the card out of her mother’s purse, I glimpsed the letters: A-A-A.

I was stunned.

The Newfield family was normal, perfect, in fact in my estimation back then and they had someone in AAA?

As we waited for AAA to come, I sat in the back seat of the car, utterly elated and filled with a warm glow of relief. My father could go to AAA. Everything was going to be okay.

About a half hour later, a dirty tow truck pulled alongside the Newfield’s car. A heavy-set man in a blue windbreaker and jeans ambled over to the car.

“You got a spare in the back?” he called, looking at the tire. “Won’t take long. I just need your Triple A card.”

A funny feeling was beginning deep in my belly but I ignored it.

“Does dad have a Triple A card?” I asked my mother when I was home that night.

She looked at me oddly.

“Everyone has Triple A,” she replied. “Everyone with a car. Especially him. God knows he’ll need it when he wraps himself around a pole next time he’s blind drunk.”

My heart sank. It sank in my chest. It really did.

AAA couldn’t help my father. He was never going to stop drinking. He was never going to come back and he was never going to be a father to me or to my brothers. Not in any way at all, not ever. We were all alone in the world with a mother who, to say wasn’t handling his departure and our new normal in a “healthy” way, would have been quite the understatement.

“Where’s Dad?” I asked. I almost never asked this because I didn’t want to know the answer and besides, none of us ever knew anyway because he always lied about where he was.

“I don’t know where that drunken whore-master is,” she said crisply. “And I could care less. Frankly, I'm shocked he's still even alive. You'd think cirrhosis of the liver would’ve gotten him by now. Or syphilis.”

These terms I did know, along with Bastard, which was another of my mother's most oft-used invectives. Accusing our father of having children flung far and wide across the globe was a favorite past time of hers, besides opera, historical biographies and tracing her Mayflower-descended family tree, something that became more and more important to her as our lives and possibilities both narrowed and unraveled more and more every year; emotionally, physically, financially; in every way possible, really.

Upstairs, I threw out the pamphlets I’d gathered so that my mother would never find them. As she did of therapy, lap band surgery and feminist-themed book clubs, she would think that AA was for Weak, Whiny Losers.

To be sure, I’d been surprised that most of the pamphlets were kept in gas stations and featured diagrams of auto malfunctions. What can I say? At that age, I was incredibly wise to the ways of the world but not the brightest bulb when it came to connecting the dots that an auto assistance service may not be the same thing as a recovery fellowship for boozers.

I'd like to be able to say that, in my adult life, I found an amazing therapist, just like in the movies: rumpled, brilliant yet real and he told me that none of it was my fault and slowly, his patient determination led me to a profound, Hollywood Breakthrough Moment that left me thawed, cured and in healing tears.

Instead, like most people who had difficult childhoods fraught with abuse and neglect, it would take me the rest of my life, and still does, to feel even the most basic sense of normalcy, safety and the courage to expect anything decent and good from life.

In any case, as I ripped up the AAA pamphlets, I didn't cry. I had two choices, I guess. Anger or acceptance and for me at the time, even as a little kid, the latter wasn’t the peaceful kind every self-help book foists on you as a means of  “closure.”

For me, it would have been “accepting” the very abuse and neglect I’d endured and would still endure in the ever-worsening years to come. Implicit in “acceptance” was that I was okay with it; that I wasn’t angry at the world for giving me the kind of father I’d later input into my phone as “Sperm Donor” and joke was the poster child for forced sterilization while other kids got “good” ones. I wasn’t okay with it and it wasn’t fair even as I also understood that so many, many other people had it infinitely, indescribably worse than I did.

That was the first time I chose anger over acceptance. It wasn’t ideal. But it gave me some fight.

Yet there is another Hollywood Moment I will never have: the one where estranged parent and child grab one another and clutch one another, crying for what could have been; what might have been and what never will be.

I know this because as I sat staring up at that poster in the hospice, my father was upstairs dying of Alzheimer’s.

On that day, too, I didn’t cry. Instead, I thought of the memoir manuscript I can’t bring myself to pass in to my agent. I haven’t been able to for years and I’m not sure I ever will. My best guess is that it’s the old, perennial favorite, Secrets, Silence and Shame rearing its ugly, familiar, yet sickeningly comfortable head.

It is what it is, I reminded myself that day at the hospice. Even as a kid, I’d known what was what. Some people win the parent lottery and some lose and there was no use crying about it. It is what it is. Which is now a cliché but one I’ve lived by since that day I threw those pamphlets and the hope they contained into the trash.

Still. I have to admit. To this day, the sight of a tow truck really, really bums me out.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Tene(mos) X-Box!

When I was in college, a friend suggested that I take a poetry-writing workshop. Having tired of all the Derrida and Judith Butler I was being forced to read, I figured a creative writing class would be kind of fun. And more importantly, that it would be an easy "A."

And I did have some experience writing poetry.

Two years earlier, I'd been responsible for a whole notebook of verse that was clearly written by a freshman taking Intro to Existentialism and who'd had a junior high school penchant for both Nine Inch Nails and Sylvia Plath.

"Death at my door," began one knee-slapping howler. "And I shout, 'Come on in!'"

Really, really bad shit. At the time, of course, I thought it was really, really good.

Cameron, the professor who taught the seminar, eschewed all things canonical and adored all things modern. 

As a result, we ended up reading a lot of poetry that didn't really say much but was kind of cool to look at, composed as it was from random, weird words (mostly nouns), inexplicably bisected by parentheses, with lots of back- and forward slashes and colons thrown in for postmodern panache:

ly/sis: : cannot/
the (dro)sera

This head scratcher was the poem (the entire poem) that Cameron handed out the first day of class.

"And what do we think of this?" he asked.

"I don't know," I volunteered hesitantly. "It seems like a literary 'Hooked on Phonics' to me."

Several people laughed and Cameron shot me a withering look.

"It's easy to dismiss. It's not 'pretty.' But it's about seeing beyond straight rhyme and rhythm. It's full of contextual possibilities."

So's the toilet after I eat a bag of dried apricots, I thought sourly.

It was a harbinger of things to come.

The only student in the workshop who was any good was a quiet girl named Megan with whom I later became friends. 

When Megan would have to read, her face would turn nearly purple and her hands would shake from nervousness. Her stuff was subtle, disturbing and insanely complex for someone so young. I still remember whole lines, it was that good.

Based purely on phenomenal writing chops, she should be famous right now except no one, myself included, really gives a shit about modern poetry. And besides, none of her poetry contained deliberately abstruse postmodern shtick.

Cameron gave Megan "A's" though. 

He had to. She was too good for him not to but you could tell that they were grudgingly meted out. Her poetry insulted his sensibility.

It actually made sense.

Unlike Paul's. His mid-semester masterpiece “GO/n:Ad” dealt with "o/nion:: vegetable (for)mica/tritan(op)ia." He explained to the class that it was about insomnia, circumcision and black hole theory as well as corporate greed in America. Since no one knew what "tritanopia" meant and Paul had cleverly bisected it with parentheses, he got an "A."

"I like it," said Cameron slowly. "It's a little...rough around the edges, but there's a certain 'found object' quality to it that I think works."

Then there was Katie, whose poetry revolved entirely around her boyfriend Josh whom she "loved like a star that rides through the night to my heart." 

I actually kind of liked Katie. She was sweet and dumb and pretty in that ripe, voluptuous, just short of porky way you know is going to turn into full-fledged obesity a couple years down the line. Every day after class, Katie would call Josh on the pink cell phone that featured Enrique Iglesias’ “Hero” as his ring tone.

Cameron hated her poetry, of course. Not only because it was sidesplittingly funny ("Hold me, Hold me, Hold me now/Under the sky"), but also because it always rhymed: "Your mouth tasted like cotton candy/That night on the beach so sandy.”

Katie often sat next to me and made no effort to hide the many lip gloss applications that were performed during discussions of, say, silence as textual space. She wrote in big, puffy, girlish script in a Hello Kitty notebook. Sometimes, she'd scrawl notes as Cameron rambled on about phonological signifiers and push them over to me.

"I think Billy just farted," read one. "LOL!!!"

Jenna, another girl in the class, I didn't like.  Her poetry revolved around anal sex. And witchcraft. And anal sex. Sometimes, cum. But always anal sex.

Once she wrote a poem called "Ch:lamy/dia." It was about chlamydia, pyromania and her perennial favorite, anal sex. And witchcraft.

Witch, I re/fuse to k(iss) your: bitters!
the itch/not just the f(ire)
but your: c/ock
in my a(s)s

Nothing was too revealing for old Jenna.

Your cum in my mouth/
Cock in my As/S:
C(ock): C/ock"
went one.

Although Jenna wasn't particularly attractive, whenever she would read the guys in class, some of whom had probably never had their cocks in anyone's mouth or anal cavity or, for that matter, vagina would sit at rapt attention.

I'm not making this verse up. I only wish I could write that funny. You see, I saved Jenna's final project. Because her final class project "ADAM:) aN:tine/ CuM (H)ere" is one of the most satisfying comedic reads I've ever experienced. And it's held up well. I still almost piss myself laughing when I read it.

Although Cameron was one of the most pretentious motherfuckers on the planet, he was also one of the biggest closet sleazes.

Jenna always got "A's."

"Visceral," he remarked one day after she had read yet another poem about yet another "C(ock) c/ock :cocK" ramming into her "a/Ss a/ss (A)ss.

Jenna smiled at Cameron.

Cameron smiled back.

 If I play my cards right, you could see him thinking, Maybe I can ram my C(ock) into her a/ss. Who cares about the ch:lamy/dia?

Then there was Ron who, either like me, thought it was an easy credit or that a poetry writing workshop meant a lot of fast–and-loose artsy pussy. With a scary ardor, he hit on every girl in class and wrote a lot of stuff about horses and dogs. Apparently, the untimely passing away of Cody, the mixed breed German Shepherd he'd had when he was ten, was one of the most profound influences on his life: "The furry body shuffled out/And I knew he was no more."

Near the end of the semester, Cameron announced to the class that our final project would be a portfolio, containing no less than fifteen poems. 

Ron and I exchanged worried glances.

Fuck, we both said with our eyes. This was supposed to be an easy "A".

Sure, outside this classroom Ron was probably a date rapist but in here, he was the closest thing to a comrade that I had. Because like me, he was at least smart enough to know that his poetry sucked balls.

Later in the student union, as I played Velocita!, a weird Italian race car game that was located next to the janitor's break room, Ron cornered me.

"What are you gonna do for this project?" he demanded.

"I don't know," I replied, swerving to avoid the polizia. 

I had no idea what this game was doing there but I loved it and played it every day between classes. 

"I may copy down the ingredients from a ketchup bottle and throw in some back slashes and colons."

I really wasn't kidding.

“This fucking sucks,” he sighed. “Cameron told me that 'Last Day of Cody' was 'puerile.'"

He brooded for a second.

I sped up.  I was near the finish line.

"What's 'puerile' mean?" he muttered.

My car flipped over a barrier.

 "Facile bersaglio!" taunted the game.

"Fuck!" I yelled.

Before Ron had distracted me, I'd been close to getting the best score yet this week.

I turned to him.

It means he thinks you're a fucking idiot, I wanted to shout.

Instead, I heaved a sigh.

"It means you're gonna have to write something with lots of weird punctuation. Throw in random words. Throw in big words. Just look through the dictionary."

"Huh," he said, considering. "That's not a bad idea."

It really wasn't, I thought later as I rode home on the bus.

As the bus passed the Safeway, I saw a sign in the window. "Fresh Whole Split Chicken Breasts," it read. I jotted that down in my notebook then crossed out "chicken."

I looked around and continued scribbling. 

“Yolanda's Hair Weave Central. Tenemos X-Box! Checks cashed here.”

My neighborhood was pretty shitty.

This was easy. And sort of fun too.

I added, "No spitting on curb," "We Accept Food Stamps," and "Pollo y cerdo" to my list. And then, "Pupuseria de Miguel."

I scribbled in my notebook until my hand hurt. Then I added "my hand hurts" in my notebook. When I got home, I went through the dictionary and pulled big words that I thought sounded cool. Then I looked up "erection" in my thesaurus and jotted down several high-end synonyms.

I strung everything together and added some creative punctuation. When I was done, it looked like this:

sin/ter sin/ter (s)inter
Ten(emos) x-bOX!

:like the ecchymo(sis)::

di/lated with (blood)

fresh :wHolE s/plit: breasts
yo(landa)'s hair
                                                          No (sp)itting on /curb


                                de Mi:guel

                                                       C/heck (s)
                     cashed here
poLLo (y cer/do)

we: acc(ept) foo/d st:amps

my :h/and (hurts).

Using my notebook and the dictionary, I did this fourteen more times. At the beginning of the portfolio, I included an artistic "statement of intent." 

It was, I wrote, a polemic against commercialism in the United States as well as an indictment of racial, sexual and class segregation in low-income neighborhoods.

Then I passed it in.

I got an "A" on my project.

And so did Ron.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Sponge Bob and the Anal Lick Analysis

I had my favorite shitty job the year I graduated from college. I'd had many a shitty job before that and have had many since. But none did I enjoy as much as my year long stint in the Chemistry department at the university from which I'd just graduated.

I found the job on a flyer in the student union. 

"Administrative Assistant Needed," it read. "Filing. Microsoft Word. Slow typists okay."

The job description pretty much captured the sum total of my abilities.

Even though I'd been an English major, I'd never learned proper, all-fingers-on-the- keyboard typing technique. While writing long papers had vastly improved my hunt-and-peck style, I was nowhere in the league of career secretaries. A "slow typist," I was, indeed. And what with the "Filing," it seemed the perfect job for me.

What was I going to do with an English degree anyway? Friends who'd majored in communications or film already had cool, interesting jobs lined up, thanks to the cool, interesting internships they'd completed during undergrad. The extent of my extracurricular activities had been seeing how many mixed drinks I could hold down, once combined with a late night bag of Cheetos.

These activities continued during my employment at the Chemistry department.

One morning, in a stall in the ladies' room, as I loudly and uncontrollably vomited up the result of the seven Amaretto Sours given to me for free at Stacy and Macy's Drag Dance Off-apalooza and half a bag of Cheetos from the night before, I heard someone come in.

I peeked through the crack of the stall door. 

It was Agatha, the pinched, anemic-looking head of the department.

Agatha had a tight, restricted bob so neat, it looked like a Hasidic wig and carried a tote bag that read, "It's All About Chemistry!" Underneath which was a picture of two beakers meeting in a kiss.

I pressed my hands to my mouth and tried to suppress my dry heaving, to no avail. I retched and a loud torrent of liquid Cheetos projectiled into the toilet. I wiped at my mouth and bent and peeked down under the stall. 

Agatha's Easy Spirits were directly in front of the door.  She was, presumably, peering at my feet.

Which really wouldn't have been that much of a problem had they been simple black or brown shoes. But they were green and blue leather, Bozo the Clown boots. They were unmistakably mine.

I could only hope she'd tell my boss that I'd been puking up my breakfast because of bulimia, which was a Personal Problem instead of Cheetos and Amaretto Sours because of a Binge Drinking Problem. Which was a Lazy, Useless, Slacker Sack of Shit Problem.

When people had Personal Problems at work, they'd send them to the university clinic for counseling. And that meant at least a whole blessed hour or two away from the office, once or twice at week.

Plus, having Personal Problems meant you never got fired.

Case in point: Dr. Grokln, who'd been on "sabbatical" for the past two years. The "sabbatical" had, of course, been a forced one as Dr. Grokln was completely and utterly off his fucking nut. His Personal Problems had become glaringly apparent right around the time he'd submitted a paper entitled, "Sponge Bob Exists: A Gravimetric Analysis."

Like many nervous, paranoid, delusional nutcases, Dr. Grokln chainsmoked. In his office. Even though it was a non-smoking building. During his "sabbatical," I used the master key and chainsmoked to my heart's content in his office with the door locked.

This would have been a lot more relaxing had his nonsensical scribblings about the electromagnetic radiation of Rice Krispy Treats and Nerf balls not still been tacked up to the wall.  Still, as I'd blow out a long plume of smoke, I'd bless him for his cancer stick habit and hope that wherever he was, the electroshock treatment and metal restraints were treating him well. And that the Thorazine drip hadn't altered his belief, based on "empirical evidence" and "extensive testing," that Sponge Bob did, in fact, exist.

One of the other perks of my job, besides a darkened, smoke-choked chamber filled with disturbing chemical diagrams that mostly proved the existence of various cartoon characters, was that I had complete, unlimited access to purchase anything from the Staples catalogue.

Since I was so broke, this meant that most of the foodstuffs in the cupboard of my apartment were ordered from the Staples Office Kitchen section: Ramen noodle cups, cocoa, gummi bears, pretzels, gum, vanilla wafers and mustard packets. To this day, the smell and texture of gummi bears reminds me of the days when most of my sustenance was procured through a catalogue other people use to obtain White Out and Post-It notes.

Besides ordering office supplies, one of my other responsibilities was to approve the time sheets of several work-study students under my supervision. Three of them were a year younger than me; the other two were grad students several years older.

All of them came in at least an hour late every day. And none of them did any work.

One of them, Zoe, I hardly ever saw although she'd fill out a time sheet each week claiming she'd worked every day. I heard from one of the other work-study students that Zoe had blown her boyfriend in the department's third floor conference room one night after their roommates had locked them out of the house.

It didn't matter. 

Without exception, I'd hit "MAXIMUM HOURS WORKED" on their online time sheets and go back to fashioning my ever-expanding paper clip sculpture.

If they were work-study students, I reasoned, they needed the cash more than the university, with its coffers swollen with bank from prep school rejects and hard partying Eurotrash.

And who was I to judge, anyway?  When I wasn't chainsmoking in Dr. Grokln's office and staring at chemical diagrams of the Smurfs' extended family tree on his wall, I sat slack-jawed at my desk, watching videos of animals doing people things and making long distance phone calls.

So I didn't give a shit that Hamlin, who washed down his morning Ritalin with a giant cup of black coffee, spent almost every day on the label maker, typing up stickers like "PHONE" and "STAPLER" and "FOLDER" and then pasting them to their appropriate objects. By the time he graduated, there wasn't one surface in the entire front office that wasn't covered.

And I didn't give a shit that Mina, who was supposed to type up fliers for upcoming Chemistry department seminars, couldn't spell or proofread worth a turd and once posted a sign that read, "Know for Sure: Treatment of Anal Lical Data."

And I didn't give a shit that Andy, a mild-mannered senior, would come in for his shift, check his email and then announce that he was going on a mail run.

 "Okay," I'd grunt noncommittally, knowing that he wouldn't re-appear until fifteen minutes remained of his shift. And that when he did, his eyes would be glazed and vacant from the pot he'd smoked on his three hour long "mail run."

Once I realized this, I'd have Andy go to Chinatown for me to pick up my pot from George, my dealer.

I suspect that Andy pinched from my bag but it was worth it not to have to interact with George who'd once confessed to me that if his pot trade didn't work out, he had an escort service lined up and ready to go and did I have any friends who'd be interested in making a quick buck or maybe I'd be interested, seeing as it would be a strictly classy venture; no weird stuff, just blowjobs and fucking. Maybe some anal, sometimes.  But only if the guy looked clean.