"If writers possess a common temperament, it's that they tend to be shy egomaniacs; publicity is the spotlight they suffer for the recognition they crave." Gail Caldwell, from her book "Let's Take The Long Way Around"

"To look life in the face, always to look life in the face and to know it for what it is. At last to know it, to love it for what it is, and then, to put it away. . .always the years. Always the love. Always the hours." From the movie "The Hours", based on the book of the same name by Michael Cunningham

"Do not read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly." Baz Luhrman, "Everybody's Free (to wear sunscreen)"

"A writer can do nothing for men more necessary, satisfying, than just simply to reveal to them the infinite possibility of their own souls." Walt Whitman

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant or talented?’ Actually, who are you not to be?” Marianne Williamson

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Back to Life, Stuck in Reality

In sixth grade at Grant Elementary School, I was free of Melinda.  She was in a different class.  So was Michelle.  I started to be friends with different people.  I was best friends with a girl named Paula for a while.  I also met Leah Melber and Jennifer Peterson, who would later become part of a larger group of my close friends.

In sixth grade, I was put into a group of GATE students (Gifted And Talented Education).  Every Friday afternoon a small group of us - maybe 15 - would do creative writing for the last hour or two of school.  I loved it.  Creative Writing was perfect for me.  It was also the first time I was selected for a group of smart students, my first exposure to an "honors" type class.  And Melinda wasn't in it.  Gradually, through sixth grade, I started to believe in myself again, started to feel okay about who I was.  I got to play the lead in our class play.  My mom made me a beautiful blue dress for me to wear.  It was exhilarating to be in the limelight.  I really enjoyed acting and even thought I was a little good at it.  I have to thank Mrs. TenBrink, my teacher, for helping me that year, and maybe she didn't even know she did.

She gave me the responsibility of going ahead of the class after lunch or recess to unlock the classroom door.  I would race ahead to the door and unlock it, pretending to be Nancy Drew, pretending I was sneaking in somewhere, looking for clues.  I would pretend to look through the easy reader files, creating a sense of urgency and suspense, knowing the class would walk in anytime.  And as soon as I heard them arrive, I would race to my seat.

Once we were reading on our own after lunch or something and I accidentally fell asleep.  Mrs. TenBrink came quietly over and woke me up.  She sent me to the nurse for the rest of the afternoon.

Maybe she knew something was wrong at home.  Maybe she'd heard about the Melinda situation.  I don't know, but looking back, she really took the time to make me feel special, even though sometimes I thought she didn't even like me.  She probably had to be sure she wasn't treating me like the teacher's pet, but grown-ups can tell, I guess, about some kids.

My dad came once to talk about his career as a lawyer.  It wasn't the first time he'd done this.  In La Crescenta he came once and talked to the class.  At Grant, he arrived after lunch.  Mrs. TenBrink told me someone was waiting for me in the classroom, so I dropped the Nancy Drew act that day and ran into the classroom to find him.  He was hiding in the closet.  I opened the door and gave him a huge hug.  I was so happy to see him.

Later, kids in my class wrote letters to him, thanking him for speaking.  My dad kept those letters, but who knows where they are now.  Most of his possessions were kept from us after he died.

Home.  Do you see how even at age eleven I had two separate lives?  I guess I compartmentalized the two.  maybe even three, since life at my dad's was totally different as well.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Define Sensational

I have been told through sources (forgive me M. and M.) that I am not being "sensational" enough in my re-telling of stories, of life events; but what constitutes sensational when your everyday life includes on a daily basis arguments over money, the final act of just taking Mom's purse and withdrawing the cash from her wallet; walking in on Dad while he's cleaning his crack pipe, or discovering that once again Direll is freebasing in the downstairs bathroom and Mom can't do a thing about it or is willing to believe or accept Direll's denials.  It becomes slightly more sensational when you wake up one Saturday morning and Mom has a black eye, except the look on her face says don't even ask about it.  What is truly sensational is when Direll is finally gone for a period of two or three peaceful, glorious months; when life becomes truly normal and calm and there is no fear of what lies behind the front door when you come home from school; when Dad is finally in rehab and recovery and you find out one day that he believes - truly believes - in a higher power, and gives you advice that you will carry with you for the rest of your life, and even more so, that that advice includes prayer.

The sadness in it all is that there is no expression, no acceptable expression of sadness over the drug abuse, the violence and chaos and desire for meaningful interaction with one's parents and siblings.  The sadness comes out in other ways:  the knickers (by this I mean American knee length pants that button, not the British kind of knickers) that are so in style, that you finally got so that you can pull your knee socks up under them, shrink in the wash and no longer fit.  Or maybe it's that they didn't shrink but I expanded in the waistline.  Gouchos, or coulottes, are no longer as chic.  I want the knickers; I want to fit in, and suddenly the shrinkage of the pants are the most horrible, worst thing that could ever happen, worth tears and tantrums and upsets that no one can fix.  The sadness is in the disappointment that the cardboard replica of Parliament required for my report on England does not match the picture in my head.  It does not sparkle like gold; it is a sad cardboard box cut-out, done at the last minute because I had no parent to guide me or help me.  Where was the mom who helped my make the incredible dioramas in 3rd grade?  Who showed me what could be achieved with styrofoam balls and shapes and a little paint and material?  That is the sadness of a 10-11 year old's life and it shows itself in the form of a mean older sister, a sullen, sulky pre-adolescent who feels as if she has no allies when it comes to science fair projects (yuck), homework checks (who cares?); no after school programs or ballet classes for me.  Only the TV with its soap operas and Oprah and Phil discussing topics I can't quite understand.  There is nothing spectacular about that.  Nothing spectacular at all.  I am merely a codependent person in the making and god-willing, a child who will grow up perfect and good and get herself through school and into a good college all on her own, without any physical bruises of her own, merely the internal damage that fortunately no one can see.  And it isn't until 33 that I realize my childhood was not normal; that I am not crazy to feel as if I am going crazy, and no wonder I had no boyfriend in high school or college, or that I was afraid of my own shadow.  Broken, forging on, but really just managing, hanging by a thread and unable to access the true feelings that were covered up by the disappointment of social failure.  That can only go on for so long.  If only, I always said and then tried not to imagine "if only" because of one thing I was sure:  "if only" was never going to happen, at least not through any of my efforts.  And it certainly seemed as if God wasn't listening, no matter how many times I resorted to prayer even though I wasn't religious, per se.

I could have gone to a school counselor, a teacher, the detective who came to our apartment to investigate a "domestic disturbance" and gave me his card.  But CPS, the dreaded CPS, was possibly an unknown more frightening than the norm.  I don't know how I got through it, what got me through it.  I don't know how my brother and sister came out so together, even though I see the scars.  I am the only one willing to beat a dead horse, it seems.

Maybe there is room for sensational later in my story.  What you've read so far is child's play.  It is mere foreshadowing, for there is still time to get out!  To stop using drugs!  To get help!  To think of the children.  Oh yeah, the children.

Tale of a Fifth Grade Nobody

In the Fall of 1980, in the wake of all that was going on at home, I was in fifth grade in a new school, Grant Elementary.  My teacher was Mrs. Hoyt, and I liked her.  I was quiet, suddenly shy - anyone who knew me back then would have called me withdrawn.  Like I said before, I had never been that shy before.  No one knew anything about my home life, except the basics.  I started out being friends with a girl named Stacy but it didn't really stick and there was some jealousy on her part over a boy in our class who liked to follow me home after school and tease me.  I was definitely not ready for boys even though I could admit that some were cuter than others.

No, the friend I really bonded with was Melinda Lee, a smart, fun Asian girl (although we didn't say "Asian" back then and more specifically, she was Chinese).  She had great imagination and was a lot like me in some ways:  the way she liked to put on plays and create parties and be the leader of fun games.  This part of me had faded a little in the wake of all my uncertainty and insecurity.  It is what attracted me to her and why we became best friends.  Every now and then I would get a warning from someone that she was going to "burn" me but I didn't really know what they meant and found it hard to believe anyway.

Melinda and I shared a desk in our classroom.  Another girl we were friends with, Michelle, sat on the other side of Melinda.  She, in fact, was one of those who'd warned me about Melinda, but suddenly it seemed that we were in competition for Melinda's attention.

Things were okay for a while.  We ate lunches together (mine were always weird because I had to make them myself; I remember once I brought sauerkraut and cinnamon toast).  We played handball, 4-square (one of my favorites because I was good at it), hopscotch, and on the high bar where we would spin on one leg and try tricks like a cherry drop.

Then Melinda began to be critical.  She would comment on my "weird" lunches that were either brought in an "uncool" lunchbox or a too big paper bag.  We couldn't afford the nicely sized brown bags and were lucky if we happened to have sandwich bags, but never the Ziploc kind.  I was usually pretty grossed out by my lunches, too, which explains all the after-school foraging.

One of the more hurtful things she did was when she used her index finger and thumb to make a circle to demonstrate the size of our waists (me, Michelle and Melinda).  Michelle was a tall beanpole; Melinda was a little shorter than me.  Here's how it went in her exact words:

"This is Michelle":  circle small, thumb and index finger overlapping;
"This is Shelley":  circle big, thumb and index finger not touching;
"This is me.  I'm normal":  a perfect circle, just the tips of her thumb and index finger touching.

That hurt.  Actually, that doesn't even describe how it made me feel.  I think I swallowed the lump in my throat and tried to move on to the next topic of conversation or activity, pretending it didn't hurt.  Despite the designer jean debaucle, it was really the first time anyone ever came even close to calling me fat, much less suggest that I was not normal.  In fact, I knew I was not normal because of my mother and father and Direll and the rampant drug use and chaos in my home.  But I thought I hid that pretty well at school and tried to fit in with every other kid.  It was the first time I felt not okay about who I was, just being me.

Then one day, suddenly out of nowhere, Melinda hated me.  I don't remember the exact day, how long we had been best friends, but suddenly I walked into the classroom, sat at my desk and Melinda hated me.  Maybe she just wouldn't talk to me, her chair turned fully to face Michelle.  Maybe she just kept saying mean things to me.  Maybe she excluded me from conversations.  I just knew somehow that she wasn't my best friend anymore.

She would accuse me of trying to cheat off her and would cover her paper with her arm in such an obvious way.  As if I needed to cheat off of her.  We were both smart, two of the best students in class, but she accused me nonetheless, made fun of me any way she could. 

One day, I came in and she had drawn a line with her pencil down the center of our desk.  Everytime my elbow happened to cross the line (she sat on my right; I'm right-handed), she would draw a star right next to the line.  It was just so petty.  I tried to ignore her.  I really did.  I knew it was stupid and that I should rise above it and not get my feelings hurt.  I tried to tell my teacher, whom I think cared, but in the end just wanted me to grow a set and get over it.  I hardly had any other friends in the class.  I became something of an outcast.

Even though at this point we were clearly not friends, Melinda would do weird things like invite me to her birthday party; or one time, she decided that the three of us - Michelle, Melinda and me - should have a "dinner party" with boys, like a triple date.  I vaguely remember who might have been there.  I wasn't exactly interested in boys at that time, although I was starting to think some were cuter than others, but that was it.

One time, earlier on, she wrote me a letter - one of many - wherein she listed all my  negative traits and compared them to all her outstanding qualities.  I remember she said that she was a "jack of all trades" compared to something like I wasn't good at anything.  The letter was downright mean.  I showed it to my mom who called Melinda's mother, but nothing really happened to change anything. 

I started to act out.  I didn't want to go to school.  I tried to be sick and ask to stay home.  My mom had a firm rule that unless we had a fever, we couldn't stay home and miss school.  (Interesting fact:  throughout my life, I have rarely been feverish although there have been plenty of times I have been legitimately sick.)  One time, I left, pretending to go to school.  I must have sent Julie off with Matt, or maybe I walked her to a point.  Then, I waited for my mom to leave, and I came back home.  I called her, of course - or maybe Direll called her because I was supposed to be at school.  An argument ensued, but what could she do?  She was at work, I was at home.  She let me stay.

Another time that I fought with her about going to school, I left the house in a tantrum, probably saying I was running away or something, but I was definitely not going to school.  I walked around, then down to the park.  I wanted her to find me.  I wanted the attention I was so lacking.  I wanted someone to understand how desperate I was, how terrible it was, being at school with Melinda.  She found me and scolded me for leaving without saying where I was going.  She sent me home.  This went on and on.  At one point, I think she gave up.  Maybe we had a heart-to-heart.  I cried all the time.  Everything was so wrong in my life - Direll, the drugs, Melinda, Mom paying no attention except to the drama that Direll created.  The only way to get her attention was to create my own drama.  But I desperately needed someone to address this situation with Melinda, and no one would.  My teacher, Mrs. Hoyt, gave up.  I think every adult's response was to just "buck up" and fight back.  I was being overly sensitive, wimpy, a sissy.  Just ignore her, they said.  But it's hard to ignore someone who is constantly in your face telling you that you are lower than low.  This was 1980, long before "Odd Girl Out" and "Queen Bees and Wannabes" were published, long before Columbine and long before anyone really addressed the issue of bullying at school.

I ended up staying home for like two weeks.  Mom finally ended up talking to Mrs. Hoyt who called to see what was up.  When I finally came back to school, Melinda and Michelle were moved to different desks.  I can't even remember who ended up next to me.  Maybe some boy.  I don't know, but I was relieved.  Melinda still tried to torture me from her new desk, but the letters stopped, and I managed mostly to ignore her.  The rest of my fifth grade year finished uneventfully, at least as far as school was concerned.  I had no friends, but I was left alone, which is how I wanted it.

In the meantime, home life sucked.  It was clear that Direll was not leaving.  He would take Mom's car and go out all night and sleep all day.  They would fight.  I think I mentioned the laundry room episode.  I guess I didn't.  I was eleven, in sixth grade by this time, so he'd been living with us for about a year.  They were fighting, as usual.  He backed her into our tiny laundry room and shut the door.  I knew instantly that was wrong.  I ran to the laundry room and opend the door.  I don't remember what I said, but I wanted him to know that I was going to protect my mom at any cost.  Mom always told me not to get involved.  She was probably trying to prevent us from getting hurt physically.  That laundry room incident was the first time there was any indication that he was physically abusive, but it wouldn't be clear to us for several years what was going on.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Here, then, am I

I'm back.  It feels like it has been ages since I've blogged, but really it's been, what, two weeks or so?  That is ages.  Life got a little ahead of me, but now, I think I am here in the moment. 

I just finished reading (what a perfect joy!) "The Hours" by Michael Cunningham.  I love, love, love the movie and can't believe now that I waited so long to read the book.  It's stunning.  It draws you in and the writing, though a little difficult at first because it is so rich in detail, becomes like liquid and you are swimming in it - or drowning, maybe, like Virginia Woolf herself.  It's lovely.

If my writing sounds contrived, forgive me and humor me just a bit.  I am still caught up in the language of the book; I can hear it in my head, the way he writes.  If you've read the book, you can understand:  Here then, is my apartment with it's antique piano and it's small space, my husband in the bathroom, shaving at five o'clock in the afternoon on a Saturday, two cats lounging on the sofa and the table.  It's a beautiful day - the reason one lives in Arizona.  The air is still and fresh, only 80 degrees or so which is warm by most standards for the end of October, but which is perfect today in Arizona.  There is still the scent of Fall in the air, the faint hint of a cool breeze, which promises even cooler weather, which I will savor in the moment when I am most cold because it is so hot for so long throughout the year.  Deril has found it in him to carve a chicken and boil the carcass for broth which is now simmering on the stove with bay leaves and onions and celery root.  And I am on the sofa, feet curled under me with a blanket, the first blanket I ever made, neither square nor rectangular but some other polygonal shape - I can't remember the correct name from geometry class.  Here, then, is the moment, the perfect time of day, just before the sun starts to set and night falls and the day begins to end with tomorrow looming ahead; but for now, it is this moment.  It is enough.

There, then, is my tribute to what is now one of my most favorite books and its brilliant author.  There is so much to read  - I still have two other books going, but I am now driven to read "Mrs. Dalloway" and of course, Cunningham's new book, just out, with which I indulged myself and bought in hardcover, even though I could have easily borrowed it from work.

Next post, I promise, will continue my own story - and I won't wait so long to do so.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


It's not too late, only about 20 min to 11pm.  I'm off work tomorrow and Deril is horribly sick with the flu or pneumonia or some kind of infection he'll be diagnosed with tomorrow afternoon because his immune system is shot.  I'm only minorly fighting the sniffles, but now I find myself fighting the sniffles for other reasons and it's a hard feeling to shake off.  I can't do this without a glass of wine.

I just finished watching "Reviving Ophelia", one of Lifetime TV's better book-based movies (another one is "Odd Girl Out" which is also very meaningful to me and should be watched by all parents of daughters).  In a nutshell, "Ophelia" is about a teenage girl who is being physically and emotionally abused by her boyfriend.  It all ends in a neat and tidy and I guess meant-to-be-feel-good way, but I can't help being saddened by it.

I'm diverging from the chronology of my main story a little here, but please indulge me.  When I went to college and I left my mom and brother and sister with Direll, I went through a sort of - who's kidding here? - post traumatic stress.  I lived in the dorms and girls were constantly running through the halls at all hours, laughing and squealing as teenage girls do.  At nighttime when this would happen, while I was sleeping, I would wake suddenly to their noises and immediately react as though it were my mother screaming in pain and fright at being hit by Direll.  I reacted in such a way that upon waking, I didn't know where I was at first and started to get out of bed to defend her, when I would realize that I was safe in the dorms and it was just silliness going on outside my room.  I was so used to being awakened by the sounds of Direll beating on her, bullying her and their constant arguing that I expected it, waited for it in the night.  Toward the end of high school and the summer before college, it was uncommon to get a solid night's sleep.  If nothing else, we were all sleeping on edge, waiting for Direll to come home at some point, shuffle around the kitchen, maybe make fried bologna and rice, pots and pans clattering.  He was in full-fledged cocaine psychosis by then, paranoid, talking to himself.  He would creepily walk to me and Julie's room and look in on us while I pretended to be asleep.

Anyway, what I started out to say was that when I went to college and my mom finally left him and moved to Arizona, secretly with my grandfather coming to get her, people would ask me why my mom stayed with him for so long.  This was, of course, after I tentatively started telling people the truth about my life.  The thing is, I don't know and yet I do know.  I mean, I understand how women can be belittled and emotionally beaten down to believe that they truly deserve to be treated like dogs, worse than dogs, and that it somehow is their fault for letting it happen.  The physical abuse hurts, leaves visible marks, but the emotional abuse and manipulation is the most harmful.  "Reviving Ophelia" (the Lifetime movie - please withhold judgement here on my choice of TV entertainment) depicted this very well.  It just happened to wrap it up all nice and neat in about 2 hours.  It took my mom 10 years to get out of her relationship and sometimes, 20+ years later the scars still show.  It makes me angry that Mom stayed with Direll for so long, that she made the choices she made, but it makes me angrier to hear people judge women who stay with men who abuse them.  It's a slippery slope (excuse the cliche) but I learned at a point that my mom was not going to kick Direll out until she was ready to do it.  Like any addict or alcoholic, she had to hit her bottom and it took her a long time to bottom out.

I got a couple of responses to my last post about Christmas from friends who expressed sympathy and empathy to me about my experiences.  I so appreciate that people are following this blog and that in some cases, people can identify with what I went through in their own way.  That is always helpful to find someone who has a shared experience.  All I can say is that it only gets worse from there.  I used to joke, in my cavalier way, that I could never turn my life story into a book because people would never believe the things that happened, they are so outrageous.  Or rather, what seems outrageous is that all these things happened to one family.  But if they happened to mine, then they happened to hundreds of other families in the world.  And then, when I think I had it bad, I watch a movie like "Precious" which is technically fiction, but clearly a compilation of many realities, and I think, I didn't have it bad at all.

I guess it's all relative, no pun intended.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The First Christmas

It became pretty evident that we were on our own.  No wonder we ate so much candy, as the only meal we could count on was dinner.  I started to learn/experiment in the kitchen.  It wasn't that I loved to cook or anything, but I liked trying recipes and really, it was out of necessity.

Matthew stayed out of the house a lot, playing with friends.  Eventually, our grandparents (my mom's parents) bought us an Atari and that helped pass the time and keep us occupied.  Julie and I spent a lot of time together.  As mean and bitchy as I could be sometimes, we were really close and even though I didn't think of it this way at the time, she was like my baby.  I would walk her to school everyday and drop her at her kindergarten class.  She cried every time I left her, which made me cry as I would rush off to my fifth grade class.  I still think of her as my darling, sweet baby sister, even though she is now well grown up, married with a young son and new baby daughter, a strong woman who has had her own share of troubles but has overcome them.  I couldn't be more proud of her.  I am tearing up now at the thought of her as a child with virtually no voice at all.

As kids at that age, at that time in Santa Monica, we retreated into an imaginary world, a total escape.  We called our blankets "akies" and suddenly started giving voices to them.  They became real to us.  Just like kids play with dolls, I guess, we created this whole world of "Akie Land."  Matthew participated a little but he didn't really have a blanket that was "the" blanket, and I didn't really welcome him.  But he and Julie played, I think.  My akie was a yellow and white handmade blanket that by 10 years old was tattered and torn.  Julie's was blue and pink and a variety of other pastels, and at 5 was in much better condition.  My akie's name was Akiana and Julie's was Akiella.  We also had little stuffed animals that we included.  Mine was a little pink elephant named Effie because Julie used to say "efelants" instead of "elephants."  Julie had a brown monkey named Kiki.  Kiki and Fe (that's how we decided to spell it) were best friends and boyfriend/girlfriend but in a very innocent way.  Since we were our akies' mommies, our akies were cousins.  I could go on and on.  We had special names for everything.  We would talk in high pitched voices and play for hours.  It bonded us, and this game went on forever, until I went to college, I guess.

I also turned to books.  I would read voraciously and visit the library often.  Judy Blume was a a favorite.  I was also in love with the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace, and of course, Nancy Drew.

All of this helped when sudden disruption would occur at home.  The first time I ever suspected Direll of hitting Mom was when he backed her into the laundry room and shut the door.  I immediately ran to the door and flung it open.  Mom didn't like me getting involved, but there was no way I was going to sit by and let him beat on her.  He never touched me in a violent way, but he bullied and beat on my mom for 10 years.  He tried not to do it in front of us because I think he wanted us to think he was okay and that it was my mom's fault anyway.  She often provoked him, but I certainly don't blame her for his violence.  There was nothing good about this man.  He had no soul, probably a sociopath.

One of the first Christmases in Santa Monica - probably the first Christmas - we had a logistical issue dealing with my dad coming to our house Christmas morning.  He had always done so in the past since the divorce, but we had lived so close by.  I don't know.  I'm sure this was all an excuse, planned out.  Anyway, Dad came over on Christmas Eve, dumped all our presents under the tree (usually he held them back under the pretense that Santa brought them, even though we knew better by then).  He came over with the sole purpose of getting high with Direll.  They were up all night, freebasing, but I didn't know it until this:  I woke up, in excitement of Christmas, of course, like I always did around 3 in the morning, wanting to sneak down to see the presents "Santa" brought.  I walked downstairs with Matthew.  All the lights were on but no one was in sight.  We sat on the couch, intending to stay up until the "reasonable" hour.  Suddenly, Dad and Direll came crashing through the living room, frenzied, high (although I didn't understand).  He yelled at us for being up and sent us back to bed.  My feelings were hurt, and of course, I knew something was very wrong.  I think this was the first time I had ever actually witnessed Dad using coke.  They freebased all night.  The next morning when Mom was up, and it was time to open presents, I don't know where Direll was.  Dad was crashed out on the sofa, strangely depressed and quiet, coming down, obviously.  Mom tried to make things nice, said he was sick.  I know she was mad about the whole thing, but she tried.  The day was colored gray for me, not the normal excitement of Christmas.  I was only 10 but things were not right with the adults in my life, and I did not like where it was going.

My explanation of this Christmas is all in retrospective understanding.  I really only vaguely understood what was going on at the time.  I didn't want to believe anything really bad was happening.  I just wanted to pretend.  Pretend and forget, or rather pretend and deny.  I couldn't forget.  The images would play through my head over and over and I would have to push them away any way I could, whether it was by reading, immersing myself in Akie Land, eating, or just trying to make everything perfect for my parents.  I wish my parents - at least one of them - had recognized what I was trying to do by being so good, but I think it was just easier to let me make things easier for them, their lives were so chaotic and stressed out.  My mom was already calling me her "near perfect daughter" and saying I was 10 going on 30.  She said it in a complimentary way, a proud way, but in the end, it only put more pressure on me to be that way.  I just didn't know it at the time.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Mom's Rule #2: What's the Worst That Can Happen?

I was SO shy when I was a kid.  I know, those of you who know me now and have known me since college are laughing and don't believe me, but it's true.  I was mortified if attention was brought to me, and at the same time (probably the Leo in me) I was dying for attention, just the good kind.  I was the kind of kid who, all through high school and most of college, that if I was called on in class or pointed out in some way, I couldn't speak without blushing and turning beet red.  My heart would race.  My face would get hot.  My voice would make that embarrassing hiccup sound because I wasn't getting enough oxygen to my head and lungs.  It was horrible.  I hated walking the halls at school, passing people I sort of knew and not knowing if I should smile, say hi, or look away.  I'm sure other kids thought I was a snob many times, but no, I was just shy.  (Today, I really am a snob, just ask my husband.)

As shy as I was, I guess I made friends pretty easily.  There was always some nice girl to ask me questions about where I was from.  I made friends pretty quickly with a girl named Stacy.  She was new, too, if I remember correctly, and I think I sat next to her at first in my fifth grade class.  Mrs. Hoyt was our teacher.  She was very nice, kindly, a motherly type in that soft 40-something way.  I'd never had a problem with teachers liking me.  I was good in school, well-behaved, not very good at P.E. (that's Physical Education for those of you who had "Gym").  I was always picked last for team sports because I was not athletic and even though I kind of liked regular dodge ball (the circle kind you play in elementary school), I really hated anything else that required athletic ability.  And I wore dresses a lot which didn't make me look like a good choice for your kick ball team.

When we still lived in La Crescenta and my parents were married, they signed me up for Tball.  I liked playing with my dad who taught me how to catch grounders with my mitt.  But when it actually came to being on a team with a coach I barely knew I was scared out of my mind.  I also got hit in the forehead with a softball (it would not be the first time).  Eventually, the coach came over to the house and talked to my parents and I was off the hook, didn't have to be on the team anymore.  It was clear I didn't want to be there.

There was a change in me in fifth grade.  It is easy to attribute it to one thing in particular, but in actuality, it has to be attributed to many things and changes that were taking place in my/our lives.

Direll was living with us full time.  As I mentioned before, every time I asked my mom when he was going home, Mom avoided the question.  Now she bluntly, flatly stated that he was living with us.  I felt blindsided.  Shouldn't she have checked with us first?  Isn't that how things were supposed to happen?  (The Brady's would have had a family meeting.)  She'd always said that we were the most important things to her in her life.  I naively took that to mean that we had a say in her life and how her decisions affected us.

I hated Direll.  I still do.  I don't use that word lightly here.  I use it with the full meaning it was intended.  He smelled bad.  He slept all day on the living room couch and snored so loud it seemed the condo would shake.  We learned a trick (me, Matt and Julie) with the phone.  We found that if we dialed our own number and quickly hung up, the phone would ring.  It was the only thing that would wake him up.

He was basically home all the time.  He didn't have a job or a car or ever really a wardrobe.  If he wasn't sleeping, he was on the phone talking incessantly in his street slang, incoherent string of words.  I didn't hate him because he was black, or even streetwise.  It was that he was ignorant and uneducated and could be surly or a comic depending on his mood.  He was a con artist.  He could fast talk his way into anything, or out of anything for that matter.  I refused to be drawn in.  I refused to give him the benefit of the doubt.  I was suspicious and judgmental  and untrusting.  I just wanted my family of four back together.

A lot of it was that I didn't want my mom to have a boyfriend, but honestly, her choice in men, other than my dad, sucked.  I remember later in the 80's seeing Huey Lewis and The News on TV and thinking, wishing, fantasizing that Mom would meet and marry him.  He just seemed so normal, straight-laced and nice.  But it was just another one of those things that no matter how hard I wished or prayed, it wouldn't come true.  It was also one of those times I felt my heart would break knowing it wouldn't happen.

It's amazing to me what an optimist I am, considering how bad things were.  I guess that's just how I figured out how to survive.  What's the worst that can happen?  If you can live with the worst, then you're doing okay.

I don’t know when the drug use started.  It feels in my memory like it was right after moving to Santa Monica.  I knew Mom and Dad smoked both smoked pot – Mom more occasionally that Dad, whose use was daily.  But it was the early 80’s and cocaine was in the scene.  I walked in on my mom snorting coke in her bedroom one time.  I don’t remember how it was explained to me.  It was definitely downplayed, but I was uncomfortable.  I’m uncomfortable now thinking about it.  My heart is racing a little and even though I have never touched cocaine or knowingly been around it in my adult life, I have had many a drug dream where I’m using and can’t stop and even feel the depression of coming down.

No one ever snorted coke in front of me other than that time I accidentally saw Mom.  But it doesn’t matter because snorting quickly escalated to freebasing, and according to my mom it was my dad who introduced both her and Direll to freebase.

This is all really hard to write about, I guess partly because it’s from a child’s perspective or a child’s memory.  Suddenly drugs were such a huge deal in my parents’ lives, and it didn’t feel the same as my dad smoking pot although by then he was growing his own plants.  It wasn’t unusual to find him drying buds in the oven.  I don’t remember the marijuana bothering me so much, but it certainly took center stage.  I guess I can equate it to being a non-cigarette smoker around a cigarette smoker where every activity is interrupted by the smoker’s need to smoke.

Cocaine scared me.  I don’t even know how I knew about it.  Maybe it was Nancy Reagan’s say no to drugs campaign.  Maybe it became more ubiquitous on TV, although TV was certainly more censored back then.  (I remember the nation being shocked when the word “bitch” was uttered on Dynasty, the first swear word on network television.)

I just knew cocaine was bad, and now that I think about it, I couldn’t understand why it was necessary.  WHY did drugs have to be a part of our lives?  And it was such an adult thing and to be honest, adult things scared me.

So suddenly I was coming home to Direll in and out of the downstairs bathroom with the fan on – from the bathroom to the microwave – back and forth, and I knew he was smoking cocaine, and I hated it.

It wasn’t just that.  Mom and Direll fought a lot.  She seemed so unhappy sometimes.  She would come home tired from work.  We would be all over her and finally she said, “I just want five minutes to myself.”  She wanted to go change her clothes, change gears.  She was under a lot of pressure.  We couldn’t afford our bills.  I think she filed bankruptcy.  As previously mentioned, her attitude was “there’s no debtor’s prison (which is true except for tax evasion).”  I used to worry for her though.  She seemed so stressed out.  Direll was sucking her dry as far as money went.  Dad was having a hard time paying child support which back then was hardly anything.  Mom and Dad would fight on the phone about child support, and that would upset me.  I just wanted peace.  I wanted a Brady Bunch fantasy family.  Pretty much I hated real life and couldn’t accept that things couldn’t be perfect.

The answers seemed so simple to me.  Kick Direll out; Dad, stop taking drugs.  They just couldn’t do it.

Once, my mom found out that someone had stolen money out of her bank account through the ATM.  It was almost everything which wasn’t much because she lived paycheck to paycheck, but it was all we had.  She was sickened with worry and devastation.  When the bank investigated they showed her the picture of the person at the ATM.  It was Direll. He had stolen her ATM card and had her PIN.  She wouldn’t press charges.  I even argued with her about it.  Here was her out!  She just gave out and let him keep on sucking her dry.  He was a vampire.  I hated him.

Drugs were center stage.  It was miserable being at home when he was there.  My mom was a slave to him, and sometimes she actually acted like she liked him, like we were supposed to be some kind of family.  She was entirely focused on him.  She believed every fucked up con story that came out of his mouth.  He was so freaking ignorant and uneducated except he insisted that he grew up in New York with his mom who had money and sent him to some kind of great New York university.  He claimed to own property in Northern California - Aptos, which is south of Santa Cruz/San Jose - and yet he owned one cheezy pimp daddy burgundy suit and maybe one other pair of pants or shirt.  His hygiene was repulsive.  He had a terrible body odor, as I've said, and we (the kids) would cringe every time he slept on the couch and God forbid happened to sleep on one of our "akies" (our name for our baby/security blankets that we all still held tight to).  If Febreeze existed back then, Matt, Julie and I would probably have pooled our money together to buy some.

I understand now in a way that my mom focused so much on Direll in order to channel his attention toward her and away from us.  I don't know if she ever thought he would hurt or abuse us, but I think somewhere inside her, she probably feared the worst.  By taking it from him, she was protecting us.  It's just too bad that it affected the way our relationships were built with her.  Well, mine, that is.  I can't speak for Matthew and Julie.  While the circumstances of the time were the same for all of us, they have their own stories to tell and their stories of course branch into a different direction from mine by the time I went to college.  But college was 8 years away and a lot would happen between now and then.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Nothing Would Come Between Me and My Calvins (because I couldn't get them on in the first place)

I started 5th grade in 1980 in a new school, Grant Elementary, in Santa Monica.  I was both nervous and excited, worried mostly about whom I was going to play with at recess and eat lunch with.  I had never really had trouble making friends before, and after all, the kids I knew from La Crescenta - well, we had all known each other since kindergarten.  I didn't really have to try and make friends with anyone.

We went school clothes shopping that year - probably one of the last times we ever had new clothes for school.  The BIG THING was designer jeans:  Jordache, Calvin Kleins (remember Brooke Shields?), Gloria Vanderbilt.  They were the kind that were so tight you had to zip them up using a hanger.  Ladies, you know what I mean.  (For years, I could never understand the appeal of "jeans day" at work because as a child of the '80's, they were never comfortable.)  I distinctly remember that at age 10 I weighed 80 pounds.  I was probably 5 feet, I'm not sure.  Mom always remembers me being the tallest in my class until a certain point.  Anyway, I don't know what the "normal" weight of a 10 year old should be but I remember being a little more on the "soft" side (big-boned, remember?), a little chubby - maybe I hadn't lost my baby fat, ha ha.  In looking back at pictures I don't see a fat girl but I definitely wasn't skinny.  Maybe I gained weight once we moved to Santa Monica.  In La Crescenta we ate candy but we didn't have the easy access we had in Santa Monica.  That summer, unsupervised, we would make regular trips to the nearby Lee's Liquor store for candy and whatever random offerings we might find.  Top Ramen was popular and only 34 cents.  I don't remember how we had money, but it must have been in the early days of allowance.  Or sometimes Mom would go to work and leave us money for the day.  Of course, this was before the time when any money left out in the open was subject to being stolen by Direll.

That summer was around the time I really began to eat my feelings.  Everyday was about "what are we going to eat today?"  I found I could comfort myself with sweets, especially if they were all mine, not to be shared with anyone else.  And  no one was policing me.  No one was telling me I couldn't eat something.  If we had ice cream in the house, I would get up before anyone else and have ice cream for breakfast.  It wasn't like anyone else was going to see that I ate breakfast anyway.  Or care.  I tried once to institute family breakfast every morning, but my mom shot me down.  She just couldn't eat in the morning and wasn't about to sit down at a table with all of us and try.

Back to the jeans.  I made Mom take me everywhere possible to find designer jeans in my size.  Actually, finding the size wasn't the problem; it's just that designer jeans fit smaller than other jeans (think Levi's, store brand, whatever).  They were supposed to fit skin tight.  My mom tried so hard to gently convince me I needed "generic" label jeans or, even worse because they just weren't popular at the time, Levi's (what I wouldn't give for a pair of good fitting Levi jeans today!).  I was desperate for something sporting a designer label, especially since I was starting a new school.

Finally, we discovered "Bonjour", a brand that might have been made by Yves St. Laurent - I'd have to research it.  They fit, probably because their sizes were closest to the true size.  And they were made by a designer everyone had heard of.  I was relieved that I wouldn't be left out of the designer jeans craze.  I might not be wearing Jordache or Calvins, but I was wearing somebody identifiable.  (Thank you, Yves. St. Laurent!)  For years, when it came to jeans, I would only wear Bonjour.

I had one pair of jeans.  That was the norm back then, at least for us.  Why did a 10 year old need more than one pair?  I mean, we were leaving the '70's behind but polyester still hung around for a couple of years.  I would wear that same pair of jeans a couple of times a week.  I guess my point is in this whole lengthy montage of designer jean stories is that while I was not a small, waify girl, I was not fat.  Have I said that enough?  It's not that I became body image obsessed.  I just kept running into walls that kept me just outside of feeling normal, of feeling like I fit in.  And it started with designer jeans and Melinda Lee and just continued throughout my teenage years while I ate my feelings and tried to ignore the fact that I was pudgier than other girls my age.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

You're Okay, I'm Okay

Here's where my story takes a dozen different turns.  Go down one road and it's all Direll and danger and abuse.  Another road is 5th grade and the bully that was Melinda Lee.  Still another road is dad and his own drug addiction, a road splintered off from an association with Direll.  And then there's me.

By 5th grade, I thought maybe I'd be a teacher, inspired by my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. George from La Crescenta Elementary.  I also fancied being a writer, having dabbled in short stories and the beginnings of a script for my favorite show of the time, "The Love Boat."  I loved playing Barbies and paper dolls, and as much as I loved playing with then, I loved naming them.  I became fascinated with names, making lists and lists of them, alphabetically.  Girls names, mostly, although at one point out of obligatory duty, I made lists of boys' names and last names.

I was also addicted to soap operas although I couldn't understand most of what happened.  I couldn't believe that people who kissed would actually do so with their mouths open and tongues intertwining, intermingling.

I watched Luke and Laura play out on my TV all summer,and was mildly devastated that I couldn't watch during the school year (pre-VCR).  I couldn't even watch their wedding, so widely viewed across the country.  When I learned later that Laura would be leaving the show, I was wholly devastated.

It was the first time that Matthew and Julie and I would be home entirely by ourselves that first summer in Santa Monica.  I imagine that my mom either a) couldn't afford proper childcare; b) thought that the fact that she worked right down the street was good enough; or c) assumed I was quite old enough to watch both brother and sister even though no clear guidelines were ever really set.

My mom for years had tried to instigate some sort of chore responsibility to us. At one time, she very creatively made a system using poker chips and the corresponding chores.  Chips could be saved up to be redeemed for some kind of reward.  (Funnily, I used this system later on to create an incentive based program for work.)

Matthew had absolutely no will or desire for chores.  Turns out, he couldn't be bribed either.  Mom gave up any expectation and thus no punishment was handed out for not helping out around the house.

I became a chore Nazi; a little Hitler, if you will.  Even if my mom wasn't going to say it outright, I took no hesitation in asserting my power, my in-chargeness, not that Matt or Julie really listened to me.  Mostly they rolled their eyes and half-heartedly performed some tasks.  I was bossy, bitchy, mean, nagging.  All my anxiety and worries and unhappiness was unleashed on my siblings.  I look back with regret at my snippiness, my unkindness towards them.  It could have been so different, but in my mind we had to have the kitchen clean, the carpet vacuumed, toys picked up before Mom got home so she would have something to be happy about.  I don't know if it mattered to her or not.  Probably it just helped solidify the codependency within my family, within me.

Before we moved to Santa Monica - probably sometime in 1979, my dad moved out of Montrose. If I remember correctly, he lost his job - don't know why - and moved in with his parents.  He must have been in his mid-thirties.  After that he moved into a condo in Monrovia that was either purchased by his parents or purchased with his parents.  It was a long commute between Monrovia and Santa Monica.  Dad wasn't happy about it.  I remember vaguely having a worry that he wouldn't want to see us every other weekend as it had always been.  He would get so angry at the traffic.  It would take him an hour to come get us on Friday afternoons and then another hour to get back.  It was hard to see him so mad and I would worry it would put him in a bad mood for our weekend.  I couldn't understand that it had nothing to do with us.

Sometimes we would go to Bob's Big Boy for dinner.  We would have clam chowder and spaghetti with chili and cheese for dinner.  Dad always drank coffee.  We would do fun things on the weekend.  We'd go to the drive-in, bringing buttered popcorn in a paper bag, candy and soda.  Of course, Dad would smoke pot.  Everybody would fart.  I can't forget my little sister, maybe 5 years old, squealing, "I beefed!"  It was so fun to be silly.

As I said before, Dad was the one who got me reading, and he fostered my love of reading by keeping me in supply of my favorite books.  We'd visit the bookstore regularly on those weekend visits.  I got to know the characteristics of each store we might visit.  This store had a good supply of these books, that store was better for those books.  And Daddy let me get however many books I wanted.  He never said he couldn't afford it, never stifled my reading.

Going to Dad's house was always fun.  He liked to make us laugh.  It was fun to be silly.  By the time he lived at the condo on Royal Oaks Drive he was smoking pot all day long.  Sometimes he used a bong, other times a pipe, other times he rolled a joint.  He didn't hide it at all.  He even educated us a little, meaning that any questions we asked he answered openly.  He became quite the pot farmer, filling his atrium with potted marijuana plants (he used to keep them in the backyard until some kids found them and stole them).  it was normal to us that he smoked all the time, even in the car.  It never concerned us when he drove with an open container.  We trusted him.

All the same we knew it was illegal.  I knew I couldn't tell my friends what he did.  One time, I even invited my friend, Melinda, to spend the weekend at Dad's with me.  I was surprised he'd said yes, knowing that he was going to have to hide his use.  None of my friends ever knew that he was stoned all the time.

Daddy had a temper sometimes.  While he was never violent, he occasionally took things out on us by getting mad, stomping around, yelling. It was fearsome.  For someone who was so easy to joke around, it was disturbing when he would get angry.  My response was to be as good as possible.

Dad wasn't afraid of crying in front of us.  Occasionally, I would walk in on him crying into a towel.  I would ask him what was wrong.  He would say he was depressed.  It never occurred to me to ask why, or perhaps if I did, his response would be, "I'm just depressed."  I'm not even sure I really knew what depressed was.  I knew it meant being sad, but I didn't think of it as a condition.  Sometimes seeing him cry would make me cry.  It was unsettling to see him that way, even though it helped teach me that it's okay to show your feelings.  When Mommy and Daddy first separated, I would feel like crying on Sunday nights.  I would tell Dad and he would talk to me and tell me it was okay.

Still, to see Daddy upset like that just made me try harder to make him happy.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Out of the 'Burbs and Into the Wild

We had movers move us to Santa Monica.  I thought our townhouse was nice.  I had my own room for the first time because Julie shared with Matthew; she was only 5, he was 7.  Maybe my mom wanted to give me a chance to have my own room.  I remember the movers broke the leg off my desk chair, which Mom said we could fix, but never did.  I managed to use my chair anyway, propped or anchored rather against the side of my desk.  The town home had cool stairs - I'd always wanted to live in an upstairs/downstairs place.  It seemed modern, even if it wasn't as big as our house in La Crescenta.  Our town home was one of 6 or 7 behind a gate with an intercom.  There was also a huge gated underground parking garage that was perfect for rollerskating in.  The movie of the time was Xanadu, which I loved and which featured Olivia Newton-John rollerskating in most of the time with her ribbon-strewn barrettes in her hair.  And leg warmers, too.  I know that the '80's have had a little bit of a fashion comeback, but people, there are some things that should stay in the 80's.  Leg warmers are one thing (unless you're a dancer); jelly sandals another; and I'm having a little bit of a hard time reconciling the "new" leggings.  And don't fool yourselves:  "jeggings" are just a new name for the skin-tight designer jeans that were so popular.  I'll get to that later.

My brother was always good at finding the kids in the neighborhood.  We moved to Santa Monica in the summertime so that we wouldn't have to change schools in the middle of the year.  My mom always did it that way.  (I, on the other hand, thought it would be more interesting to be the new student in the middle of the year, another attention-getting design, I suppose.)

The kids in the neighborhood were younger than me, except for Sergio who lived across the street in a house and was in my grade.  I wanted to like him, to be friends with him, but he was kind of gross, always spitting lugies (sp?).  He was hot and sweaty, too, a little overweight.  Basically, he was a 10 year old boy.  That summer is a little vague for me, other than the periodic visits from Direll and Mom's other old friend, Ed Pelleteieri, who I decided to refer to as Elliott because of something I'd read in a Nancy Drew book.

Ed/Elliott was an old boyfriend of my mom's, I guess.  I don't know how she knew him, but he lived in Illinois or Ohio or someplace like that.  He came to visit for a few days or a week.  At first, I didn't not like him.  He was okay.  He stayed during the workweek so Mom still had to go to work while he stayed at our home with us.  I was a good sport.  I even made breakfast one morning and set the table.  I was 10.

But then the hugs started.  He liked to be hugged and told us hugs were good, but his kind of hugs were not the kind I was used to.  His way, you would lie down on the floor and he would lie on top of you, with his arms around you.  I didn't like it.  It felt awkward, uncomfortable, inappropriate, but I didn't know how to get out of it.  Eventually, I would squirm away, I guess, but it was always awkward.  I wanted to avoid him and couldn't wait for him to leave.  He hugged my sister that way, too, but not Matthew.  Once I came home from somewhere and he was hugging my mom, but they got up very quickly when I came in.  Finally, he left and never returned.  Hallelujah.

Direll did return though.  By then I'd decided I didn't like him.  He slept all day on the couch and snored louder than I've ever heard anyone snore before.  It made watching TV uncomfortable and almost impossible, especially since there was no where else to sit to watch TV.  Remember, back then, people didn't have a TV in every room.  We did own a 13" black and white TV that sometimes worked, but it wasn't the same.  As latchkey kids, we were babysat by the television all day long.  It was at this point where I knew what were were going to watch all day long, every hour of every day.  The repetition and monotony were comforting.

But Direll's presence was suffocating, stifling.  Sometimes I would play Barbies or paper dolls while watching TV, but when he was there I didn't feel free to be myself.  I was self-conscious.  When he was awake, he was hard to understand and he smelled bad.  I mean BAD.  Other times he would get on the phone and make calls for hours.  Or he would shuffle around the kitchen, looking for something to eat, often making what I considered disgusting food, always leaving a greasy mess.  I resented cleaning up after him.

Febreeze did not exist back then, but we could have sorely used it after he finally left the couch.  It reeked with a B.O. I'd never smelled before.  Eventually, it would air itself out.

I started asking Mom when he was going to go back home to San Jose.  She would give me vague answers until finally one day she admitted that he was going to live with us.  I had to accept the fact that he was my mom's boyfriend.  I hated him.

I did find ways to distract myself.  I would ride my bike around the neighborhood, or Julie and I would walk down to the park which was just down the street.  We'd walk to the liquor store and buy candy or Top Ramen.  Matthew always found ways to get out of the house.  He'd play with the other boys in the neighborhood.  He'd ride his bike anywhere, go play video games at the same liquor store.

One time, he and a neighbor boy went to the park and came hurrying home, announcing that Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) was at the park.  I was skeptical, but Julie and I followed them anyway, keeping our distance.  The guy looked like Mark Hamill, but even I knew that Mark Hamill wouldn't be just hanging around some Santa Monica park.  Sure enough, the autograph he signed for my brother said in cursive (which Matt couldn't read) "Fuck you, Matthew."  Obviously, they'd make a mistake.