Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My Three Favorite Movies Part Three

The Best Years Of Our Lives - This is the greatest war/post-war/anti-war movie ever made. It is an indictment of war that is so subtle, I don't think it counts as a traditional anti-war film. Samuel Goldwyn, the producer, famously said "I don't care if the film doesn't make a nickel. I just want every man, woman, and child in America to see it."
It is the story of three men returning from World War II with new realities waiting for them. One of them will return to his former life, unable to recognize it. One will return to a reality no one would talk about. The third will return literally as a different man, and face a world that doesn't change. It is a quiet, persistent film that gives me hope on so many levels. Given the current circumstances in my life, that says a great deal.
Fredrich March plays Al, a bank executive who enlists and serves his time as a foot soldier in the infantry. Dana Andrews as Fred, a soda-jerk, becomes a decorated Captain in the Air Force. Harold Russell plays Homer, the all-American kid, who serves in the Navy where he loses both his hands and returns with hooks that he has learned to utilize proficiently. They are not received as heroes or villains, just three men needing to proceed with their lives.
Al, by far the older of the three, has a family waiting for him. He reemerges in his environment humbled by his experience, and with a completely different perspective on his profession. He understands the intent and potential of the GI loan program, and battles with his bank to fulfill it. He is aloof, and has great difficulty reintegrating with his family. For the first time in his life, alcohol becomes a coping tool, and he flirts with self-destruction.
Fred had married a young woman while he was an officer in training, and now the prospect of living with this unskilled guy with few prospects isn't very appealing to her. It isn't long before her contempt is obvious, and her efforts to hide her indiscretions aren't even half-hearted. The skills he acquired in the Air Force are of little use for him now, and competition for even menial positions is tough. Fred looks for work, and has to return to the drugstore with whatever dignity he has left, knowing that medals don't shine on a cuckolded hero.
Homer returns to his loving parents, and his childhood sweetheart right next door. I can't begin to convey the pathos in these scenes; not having any idea how a writer imagines such things. I can only say, it is at once the most humbling, tender, and uplifting interaction I have ever seen on film. Despite the predictable issues, this young girl is solid in her conviction that she loves him, not a martyr, just a loving wife. At one point, Harold takes her into his room to show her how helpless he is when he removes his prosthetics, to face her future if she chooses to honor her childhood commitment to him. I am crying now as I write this.
All three men find their way eventually, and they do so by supporting each other. Three men who would have never crossed paths in a meaningful way if they hadn't been transported halfway around the world into a nightmare. Tragically, the nightmare pales in comparison to the waking world they return to. That is the indictment of war, not of the cause, not of the means, but of the unsanctified reunion the nation provides for these men. We would learn this lesson over and over again, to the point that even the most rabid dove extols the differentiation between the evil intent and the obliging tools (i.e., "I am against the war, not the soldiers"). I am not sure this pedantic advocacy is any more comforting than the benign neglect Al, Fred, and Harold endured.
Once again, the appeal of this movie for me is in the dignity of the characters involved. Simple, true, and unwavering devotion despite long odds and short options. I realize from time to time, that I have overcome some relatively stark circumstances, but certainly not with the dignity I would like. I relate to the goodness in these men, feel it inside me, just wishing that I would temper some of the less attractive aspects of my nature that have chased me since childhood. Instead, I think, I allow myself the simple entitlement of survival, that self-pitying albatross that was placed around my neck those years ago, that I am too stupid to remove. There are no more excuses, I am at the point in my life where I am looking forward with blessings and favor, not misery and misfortune.
*Postscript: Harold Russell is the only actor to win two Oscars for the same role. Not expecting his Best Supporting Actor recognition, the Academy awarded him a honorary Oscar "for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance." Sadly, years later, he would sell one to pay for his dying wife's medical bills.

Monday, March 22, 2010

My Three Favorite Movies Part Two

Goodbye Mr. Chips - In the greatest year in cinema history (1939), an actor playing a mild-mannered teacher beat out Clark Gable (Gone With The Wind), Laurence Olivier (Wuthering Heights), Mickey Rooney (Babes In Arms), and Jimmy Stewart (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington) for the Oscar. Robert Donat, in possibly the only bildungsroman perfectly adapted for film, gave a monumental performance that is timeless and mythical. At once, he was everything I knew I should be, everything I could be if learned my craft, and learned how to love people.
This movie taught me about legacies, human and intangible. In a profession where nothing concrete emerges by the end of the working day, teaching can be disappointing if one needs direct feedback other than the ephemeral nuances the learning cycle produces. A smile, that momentary look of epiphany, the apple left on the desk, are not always enough to fuel a lifetime of passion and dedication. This movie elegantly expresses the true potential of schooling, the human intercourse that changes student, teacher, institution, and society alike. Hope and glory through simple daily gestures. Dignified and noble endeavors, diligently pursued from tedium through devastating circumstances. It is a movie that teaches patience and the virtues that follow. I can't think of any other movie that moves me as this one does.
Robert Donat ages sixty years in the movie. As a young man, the movie made me ponder my grandfather as a young man, wondering what path molded him into the man he was. It gave me hope that there was time for me to evolve, for my few virtues to triumph against my vices, for me to become a good man with a great legacy. For the first time, I envied a boring life(not for long, but romantically so). His graceful acceptance of failures, his perseverance through the worst tragedy imaginable, and his undaunted sense of propriety were so foreign to me. I doubted I could ever be that majestic (a new form majesty for me), but I could try. And in my way, I have tried, and I have changed for the better. But at this rate, I will need to live a few decades longer than Mr. Chips.
Greer Garson, in her first film, set the standard for all future women in my life. She was unfathomably attractive, gentile and practical. Her character is the perfect embodiment of a woman - intelligent, intuitive, attractive, and compassionate. She was certainly out of her husband's league, but completely devoted to him. I have never been as devastated by a scene as I was when Mr. Chips leaves the bedroom where his wife and newborn child have died. The scene was quick, it wasn't drawn out, and it nearly killed me I think.
And perhaps the greatest impact of the film on me was the message of tradition, duty, and honor. To that point, I had little affection for such things as they reminded me of the class variances I grew up in. My step-father fought the world and it fought back with disdain and prejudice; my siblings and I were guilty by adoption. I disliked authority and and what I saw as pretenses of normalcy. I never related to The Waltons, Happy Days, or any other family oriented shows. I should have come of age in the Sixties when sentiments like mine were common and heralded. Ten years later, my discontent was neither noble or purposeful, it was just aimless and painful. But I saw what those students in that school walked away with, and I saw the resolute and dignified process education can be.
Today I find that I cling hard to educational traditions and practices. I see kids like me that rebell against everything institutionally driven, to their own detriment. Holding them to a path, as I was eventually held, is their only salvation. Consistency is fairness, it does promote justice. I don't know how often I have heard minority students criticize their more liberal instructors for their inconsistent actions. Deep down, we all need to know there is a system we can rely on, a system that will treat the same behaviors from anyone equitably. Changing ideals and guidelines on a whim for every student that appears unconventional only leads to the chaos that probably created the student in the first place. I am not speaking of unjust practices or mindlessly repetitive gestures aimed at differentiating and destroying diversity and dissent. I am speaking of a culture, a tradition that might connect me to my peers, my ancestors, and my progeny.

My Three Favorite Movies Part One

I am often asked what my favorite movie is. I never have a definitive answer. I have been worried about it lately, knowing that I should have a favorite movie. It would tell people a lot about me, spur countless conversations, and point me towards some blog or society for friendship and nerdy mirth. I need to have a favorite movie!
Seriously, I do love movies, always have. I love movies from all eras, and all genres (although I haven't been attracted to comedies much in the past few years). I remember movies, the actors, the directors, the related trivia. People accuse me of studying credits - movies are living, vibrant entities, every aspect of them fascinates me. All the more reason I should be able to articulate that/those movies that I love best.
I sat around one day, trying to decide on some criteria on which to base my final decision. After a long, fruitless analysis, it struck me that I was looking in the wrong direction. Instead of thinking about the qualities of the movies, the theme, the message, the significance etc., it occurred to me that my favorite movie/s were those that I watched over and over again. A movie that I would stop to watch no matter what I was doing, no matter how many times it showed, no matter if I had seen it the day before. No matter if it did not appear on anyone else's top ten list anywhere in the world. Three movies immediately came to mind: The Great Escape, Goodbye Mr. Chips, and The Best Years Of Our Lives. That was it, job done. Well, it wasn't. Now I realized I had just reversed the natural order of things, and was morally obliged to articulate why I would watch them over and over again. So to my chagrin,I was back to qualities, themes, message, significance, etc. Anyway, here is my attempt to explain why these movies enthrall me so much:
The Great Escape - This one was relatively easy, but disturbingly painful. As any film fan knows, this movie is not usually compared to the other two in serious discussion. I was about ten years old, in the Boy Scouts. For some unfathomable reason, my step-father was nominated to be a den leader, and he managed to hold the post for a few weeks. We had some large function, and he was to be the MC. I was terrified that he would show up drunk or embarrass me. The evening went well, and I got a glimpse of that charming side of him I never ever saw. He stood up near the end of the evening and announced that he was cutting the program short, as he realized everyone in the room wanted to get home to watch The Great Escape (evidently it must have been the network premier). There was a loud cheer, and I was actually proud of him. We went home together to watch the movie...I wish I could tell you there wasn't an explosion later in the evening, but at that age, I took what I could get. Now the movie itself is excellent, and probably underrated. A group of men, fighting impossible odds, supporting each other, adhering to duty above all, even life itself. Something I wasn't experiencing in the late Sixties. And I dare you to tell me there has been a cooler character than Steve McQueen, or a more riveting scene than his motorcycle romp through no man's land.
Honestly, I don't know how good the movie is, maybe it just represents a moment in time when I felt normal, close to my step-father, proud of my family. Good enough I guess.

There but for the Grace of God, go I

When I left Peace Corps Jamaica, I discovered that I was entitled to one free counseling session. I thought long and hard and decided to pursue it. I didn't have any pressing issues or goals, just was a little intrigued. I made an appointment and gave it little more thought. I showed up a few days later to a small office in a small complex. I met the psychologist and followed him into his office. He looked just like I thought he would - beard, sleeveless sweater, pipe, etc. We sat and chatted for awhile and he gave me a few tests. The only test I remember was an instruction to draw a tree. Not being very artistic, I was not thrilled but tried anyway. When I handed it to him, he looked at it, glanced up at me, turned back to the picture and said "aaah." I knew I was in trouble.
I had drawn a tree that looked like an inverted umbrella, long straight trunk and a cup-shaped canopy. This two minute exercise spawned a thirty minute diatribe. It turned out that I was a misanthrope of sorts, ruggedly alone, suspicious of strangers, preferring my own company above all else. I can't remember all the other attributes he inferred from my artwork, but he was quite pleased with his analysis. He asked me what I thought, and I mumbled some sort of consent, not having the heart to tell him what I was thinking - I had drawn the picture of a tree that grew in my yard in Jamaica, as it was the only tree I could picture.
When he finally got around to asking me questions, his insight did improve. He challenged one of my answers in a way that has never left me. It was one of the few confrontations that impacted me immediately. He had asked me about my friends and associates, and when I was finished, he asked me if I saw any patterns, any similarities. I didn't, so he pointed them out to me. Many of my friends were "less fortunate" than I. There were three from an adult home who I took bowling each week, and accompanied to the local and state Special Olympics each year. And then there was Rick, who I befriended at the hospital I worked at. As a child, he had suffered from encephalitis, and was left with the intellect of an six-year old. He was an amazingly loyal friend, and we could spend hours doing nothing. We went fishing, sat around talking about his hotwheels collection or his hooked rugs. I always laughed when I called him, because I could never get him off the phone. Every time I tried to wrap up, he would say "so what have you been up to?" He and his mother (ages 50 and 70 respectively) had come to visit me in Jamaica. To this day, he smiles and claims I tried to kill him. On the first day, I took him to the beach and he scraped his ankle on some coral and got a sunburn. Later that night, he ate some Jamaican food that upset his stomach. The next day, I took him out in the yard, climbed a tree to pick some fruit. I slipped out of the tree and he broke my fall. It was the same tree I later drew for the psychologist!
As I talked about my acquaintances, the psychologist asked me why so many of my friends were "special." I thought about it long and hard and realized I didn't care why, but it was a curious pattern. He went on to confront me about my self-esteem, my feelings of inadequacy, etc. Almost as if it was a deficiency, a short-coming in my make up. He irritated me, but I was determined to think about what he had said. To this day I still collect "special friends" and some not so special.
I have always wanted to help people since I can remember. I would give any money I made from washing dishes to whatever school drive was going on. I never needed for anyone to notice, I just felt good dumping the change in the can. Years later I was doing a presentation in Ohio for librarians, when a young man approached me after the session. He introduced himself and told me we had been at the same high school together, fifteen years before. He told me he wanted to thank me. He had been the team manager, and was pretty much abused by most of the athletes. He told me that I had always treated him kindly, and had once interceded when an older boy was trying to humiliate him. I barely remembered him, and did not recall the incident at all. It remains the best compliment I have ever received.
I had always wanted to join the Peace Corps, had always known that I would end up in a profession that helps people. I didn't connect it to any sort of altruism or spirituality, it was just something that made me feel good. Now, years later, I was made to feel bad about it by a shrink with lousy smelling tobacco. I came to a conclusion on the way home that day (a day before I reenlisted in the Peace Corps), that I would continue to help people whether or not it was born from a suspect motive. After all, who should care? I don't need to be with people less fortunate than I in order to feel better about myself - it's simply that these friends accept me, care about me simply because we spend time together, simply because we respect each other. It is a bond that is so simple, it's pure. I can't describe it better than that.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Strong Sweet God of Wine

I am in a strange, metaphysical place in my life. When I was younger I drank not knowing why. Now I understand why I drank for twenty-two years and why I stopped. I also know why I would drink now, but won't. Also, for the first time, I have a sense of place and time, and my connectedness to it. I am no longer a stranger in my own world; good, bad, whatever, I am here and I belong. This place has its rent however; being here, I can't run, can't drift, fade, or wander off. I need to stand and face the consequences of living an examined life.
I suppose drinking was always held a self-destructive motive for me. I never craved alcohol, never kept it around, never thought much about it. When I did go out with friends, I would drink. If I had enough money, or charity, I would get drunk. From the beginning I lacked that bio-feedback mechanism that lets you know you are disoriented or have had too much. A little felt good, more felt better, too much felt great. Being raised in an environment where no one was allowed to discuss my step-father's drunken behavior, I guess a back-to-zero policy was my default. When I went out to drink, it never occurred to me that bad things would happen, though a simple retrospective journey would have made it very possible, even inevitable. Instead there was an odd sense of adventure, of anything happening. I felt a youthful sense of power in that. What confuses me to this day is not my own willingness to step out into the darkness, but that others would repeatedly follow me.
The morning after would bring a deep sense of dread. I didn't always remember the events of the evening before, and could never be quite sure I hadn't forgotten something. Waking up in my own bed was always a good thing; it meant that I hadn't done anything too bad or stupid, or that I hadn't been caught. Often I would wait for colleagues to reveal the details, that is if I let them. Being drunk was a license to be confident, arrogant, aggressive, decisive, unrepentently so. I am sure there were some people who feared or respected me for this, sadly. I never understood the darkness that came out, the anger. I didn't feel those things when I was sober, and my only experiences with alcohol were violent, so I guess I believed it was the alcohol itself, never having to face the demons inside that it released.
I didn't drink often, and I didn't drink because I was happy or sad, it was more a matter of opportunity. I never put it altogether, never connected the dots until I was in my thirties, expecting my second child.
I was watching a show about atheletes and alcohol (not by choice) and I listened to Dennis Eckersly as he explained why he quit drinking. He had never had the problems I did, he simply watched a video of himself from a party. At the time, he thought he was charming and witty, later all he could think was "please God don't ever let my children see me that way". He quit drinking on the spot. So did I.
That was seventeen years ago, and I have never been tempted to take a drink. I have dreamt of drinking and the resulting problems, almost sobbing with relief to wake and find it only a dream. Lately though, I have come to understand why someone like me would choose to drink. From Hesse: "The god of wine...he invites those who are dear to him to feast and builds them rainbow bridges to blissful isles. When they are weary, he cushions their heads; he imbraces and comforts them like a mother when they become melancholy. He transforms the confusions of life into great myths and plays the hymn of creation on a might harp...the known world shrinks and vanishes, and the soul hurls itself with fear and joy into the uncharted distances of the unknown where everything is strange and yet familiar; and the language of music, of poets, and of dreams is spoken." Peter Camenzind
There is a special kind of romantic who has no business romanticizing anything - he has never loved, nor allowed himself to be loved properly, so he opines a sugar-sweet soliloquy that serves as a thin veneer for his self-pity. And even in his own deluded state, he recognizes the hollow tone of the song he sings. But when he drinks, his melancholy contrivances gain flesh and sinew, and that which never existed breathes and brings him pain. Alchohol constitutes the lie so well, it mocks the sincerity of truth. He wallows in the manufactured pain, and eventually drinks, he thinks, to escape it.
I don't always know what to do when I am down, or when I feel that sense of dread that follows me out of my sleep to haunt the beginning of the day. Worse, when that apparition appears in the daylight, or early in the evening, I have no consistent way to cope with it. I know if I can distract myself, it can be temporarily abated, but it will return. Sleep is no bargain either, as it is often intermittent, and the residual effects are often more intense than the malady I fled. So I try to cope, to face the underlying issues that create my malaise. But I know, it's always in the back of my head, that I could take a few drinks and everything would transform. I can almost feel the exhaulted sense of self, the swift turn around of emotion and perceived fortune, and the false happiness produced from virtually nothing. I understand why people turn to this form of therapy.
I won't drink. For I was lucky enough to see the ravages of alcohol long before I heard the seductive promises. I have done enough soul-searching to know I don't want to contribute to my own self-destruction, and that any temporary illusion kills some part of my soul. I have learned to think about prayer differently though, having listened to a recovering alcoholic: "It's not that I pray I won't die if I take another drink; I pray that I will."


I guess there are two kinds of love, each accompanied by its own brand of pain. The first is that love that surrounds you, embraces you, but never penetrates the recesses of your heart. I think many children of alcohol and chaos know this love. They have a need for human contact, for a stunted kind of intimacy despite the fact that they can never fully open themselves to it, and inevitably they know this leads to foreclosure. While it exists, it is warm, comforting, and familiar even as it begins to slip away. They will lose friends, lovers, spouses, and if given enough time, even their children (the most forgiving and patient of all). And they will watch the familiar play unfold, act to act, without the possibility of rewriting it. The pain they endure is lonely, desolate, and unrelenting.
Then there is the love you let into your heart. It must have been created by a bipolar deity - it is euphoric and crushing in its power, and it is the only kind of love that breeds hatred. I don't know how the children of alcoholics learn this love, how they learn to trust it, how they cope with it. I guess it is a lot like alcohol itself: Warm and inviting in embrace, fun and giddy in abandon, and cruel and vicious if abused or neglected. Only the bravest of those whose family love was beaten into them endeavor such a risky venture. Trading a familiar, dull pain for the cruelest enmity of all - betrayal.
Imagine the child, surviving, learning how to protect herself, how to withdraw from the daily nightmare no one else knew, growing up to offer that untouched heart, that virgin portal to her soul to a stranger. Imagine the risk. And he will come offering, begging for access in the name of love and unity. She will open her heart and learn the pleasures and peril of that level of trust. She will learn new emotions, new forms of insecurity that only come from fear of losing that which you could never hope to hold. And if she prevails, doesn't sabotage her own desperate desire with caution and distrust, she may gain what so few of us seem to obtain. But if she does allow him in, gives him every ounce of her heart, and he betrays that gift, the pain she suffered in her childhood will pale in the shadow of the carnage to come.
I don't know how these children learn to love, learn to trust, learn to share. I don't know how they survive intact, willing to open themselves fully to the possibilities of love and life. I do understand the friendship of loneliness, the security of a consistent, familiar pain.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Human Nature

I got a call the other day asking if I would take over a Philosophy of Human Nature course being taught at a local university. The class had just started and the instructor could not continue. So, Tuesday morning I will go in and teach the class for the next seven weeks. I love teaching this class, and I do a good job, but to be honest, I am not sure what I really think about human nature. This may sound odd, as I said I did a good job teaching it. What I mean is that I can often get my students to examine their own beliefs, challenge some of them, and to look at issues through other perspectives. And sometimes, they walk away from the class with a better appreciation of the complexities of the world around them. Having said that, I am not sure I could or would tell them what human nature was or wasn't.
I have taught the class several times, and on each occasion, I prepare myself with the following exercise: I imagine what my concept of the world and the nature of the humans in it would be if I had never left the environment I was raised in. It isn't that my upbringing was bad per se, it's just that it was so narrow, so insulated in its own peculiar way. I then examine the discrepancies from my current views, and in the lee of an academic exercise, I try to imagine what experiences, what lessons eventually broadened and changed my perspectives. What were these experiences that shook my core, and what were the subsequent lessons that kept me from returning to the center of my imagined world? These are the questions I ask myself before I endeavor to take a group of students on a correlated journey.
For the next few posts, I will take a look at my evolution in regards to some basic questions that define human nature, and in the process, try to circumscribe what I now see as the hope and potential of our race. This renewed optimism is essential in my ongoing battle with the darkness that remains in my soul. I will begin with the most important issue, in my mind, that of human freedom.
Do humans have free will? I suppose I never believed that free will was possible. To have free will, one must have viable choices, and the consequences should be consistent and evenly applied. No such conditions existed in our household - chaos and mayhem were more familiar to me than logic and order. It never occured to me that I could change what was happening around me, that I or my mother or my siblings really had any choices at all. Nothing we would do would alter the coming events significantly. My step-father's actions dictated my universe, yet even he had no choices, no freedom. For as my mother would remind us constantly, he was a product of his illnesses, he couldn't help what he did. I learned not to plan things, not to expect anything positive. Only to cope the best I could at that moment with whatever resources were available to me. There was no sense to it, therefore no need for justice. There was only survival. Even that was no choice - I hadn't yet learned from my mother that there was an alternative to surviving.
Once on my own, I discovered a completely different reality. I found individuals, groups, institutions that honored their commitments, and demanded the same of me. I found that if committed to a course of action, I would receive support and encouragement. If I deviated, I would receive feedback and redirection. For the first time, my universe was no longer ruled by caprice, I could navigate it with some efficacy. I made a lot of mistakes, but they were clear, identifiable and I could learn from them. For if there are no rules, there are no mistakes, no correct actions, no virtue, no truth.
I should mention that these individuals, groups, and institutions were there in my childhood, but I was exempted from the dignity of their conventions: I was the child of that family, couldn't be expected to be anything other than I was. I had to reemerge, appear to be from a different context before I could be afforded the chance to be free. So if you ask me now, I would say yes there is free will, if you are lucky enough to find it.

Friday, March 12, 2010


Every few years, I return to the town that I finished high school in. We were only there for two years, but I count it as my hometown. When I visit my friends, I stop by and look at our old house. It is a small, two story house typical of those in the Midwest - front facing the street, back the alley, and ten feet from another house on either side. It is a pleasant looking house from the outside. The last time I was there, I just parked on the street and looked at it for awhile. I sat there for a long time wondering how a house could look that nice from the outside and hold such terrible memories within.
I thought how people must have driven by this house for those two years we lived in it, not having any idea what was happening inside. I wondered how many houses were like this one across this country, the world even. Nice looking houses that kept their secrets inside, seemingly undamaged by the human horror within. I didn't hate the house, I just had no homesickness for it - it wasn't a home. It was a place I came home to, a place where I waited for my step-father to come home, praying he wasn't drunk, and if he was, praying that he would sleep. The worst time was between five and seven. At that time he could return home sober. If he wasn't home by seven, then I knew he was drunk.
I sat and thought about the memories I had of the various rooms of the house. I thought about the living room and the times he hit me there. Often, it was when I wasn't looking. Once he hit me just as I was about to take a drink from a pop can - I still wear the curved scar on my upper lip. I remembered the Christmas morning he stormed into the room and threw my little brother's toys outside in the back yard because we were making too much noise. Most of the mayhem happened in that living room, I would never think of calling it a family room.
The kitchen didn't bring back any better memories. I recalled being hit in the head from behind, full force, for not drying the dishes properly. For the first time in years, I remembered getting between my mother and my knife-wielding step-father as he raged out of control. He had the sense not to stab us, but I didn't know that at the time. I thought about the long flight of stairs up to the second story. I remembered having a date and him offering to get me a bottle of whiskey. I don't remember the date (the first and last), but I do remember getting home drunk, making it up to the second floor where he was waiting. He slapped me and knocked me down the entire flight of stairs. Oddly, my parents room was the only room that didn't engender any memories at all. I think I liked that room because if he was in it, he was asleep.
My room didn't bring any positive memories though, it was a place where I would sometimes hide when he lost control. Inevitably, I would go out and face him as I realized his fury was being directed at my mother or my sister. There just wasn't anywhere in that house that I felt good about.
I drove away slowly looking at other houses, wondering what was happening at that very moment, inside. I thought about my own house now, and hoped it meant something different to my two daughters. I hoped their memories would be good, pleasant ones, that the house was a place they loved to be in and would miss when they grew up. I wondered how they would remember me in the house, thinking I still had time to make sure it wasn't just a house, but a home.

Apology to my Daughters

I don't know why I don't show you how much I love you. I don't know why I didn't hug you more when you were younger, why I don't hug you more now. I am very proud of you both, and I love you very much. I don't know why I haven't done everything I could to make you feel loved. I am sorry.
I quit drinking before you were old enough to see and understand the ugliness that follows. I did that for you. I worked hard to provide for you, and to make a stable household for you. I have been very proud of everything you have accomplished and the young women you have become. I have never been ashamed of either of you, and I love you both equally.
Honestly, I am still amazed that you love me, for it hasn't been easily. I am sure that it appears to you that I am often friendlier to others than to you. I left you here with your mother to work in other places, and I regret that now. It wasn't my intention the first time I left, but things didn't work out, and you couldn't follow me. I am sorry for the time I missed in your life.
I don't know how long I will be here before I will have to take another job, but I want you to know that I am working on things, that I love you, and that I want to work on our relationship. I really do. I need to ask you to forgive me, and to help me. It will not be easy, but I think I am ready to make the changes I need to make. Your love is the most precious thing I have. I don't want to lose it. I would love more than anything to make you feel the love that you show me. I will try.


"Oh love isn't there to make us happy. I believe it exists to show us how much we can endure."
Hermann Hesse

The last thing I ever connected to my upbringing was my own capacity to love. My anger when I drank, my distance from most people, my need to confront things and issues, and my urge to keep moving from place to place, job to job all made sense to me in this context. I never examined my ability to love others, either women, my family, or my daughters. It never dawned on me to suspect that love wasn't an intrinsic gift independent of my environment or the conditions I was raised in. I guess I thought it was something so pure, so natural that anyone could summon it and make it work.
My mother was loving in her way. She hugged us, tried to protect us from my step-father, and she professed her love often. But the emotional blackmail that followed negated those overtures. When things didn't go well, she would retreat into her "illnesses" or into a deep depression. And the lesson I learned most about love from my mother was that she loved my step-father, and it was her job to repair whatever damage he would do to us. It was also her job to let us know he loved us, for he never told us, other than a few times when he was in a drunken stupor. No, I don't think I ever had a chance to experience or understand love in a healthy way.
By the time I left the house I thought I was ready to love others, to engage in intimate relationships. But I was wrong. I never, ever let anyone too far in. I didn't share my feelings, other than anger and occasional playfulness. I never allowed anyone to understand me, to share my life. I didn't know how.
I believed that working hard and providing for my family was my job. I did so, and continued to keep those people I loved at arm's distance. Subsequently, I am now 50 years old and realizing that no one knows me. Yes, people love me, God knows why, but no one knows me very well. And despite the fact that I have realized this, I still have no idea how to reach out and let those around me in. There is a peculiar kind of loneliness that follows this revelation, but not a terrible kind. You can hurt people by letting them in, and maybe I just don't like what is buried deep inside me. So my form of love has been protecting those around me from myself I guess, and I never understood that (though I listened to thousands of complaints over the years about my remoteness) until I saw the film Affliction. The movie was familiar, the story much like my own. But it was the film's final narration that really that made things clear for me. Men like me, who are raised in violence, retreat from those we love, knowing instinctively that the violence is deep inside us well. Our job is to protect them from our inheritance, subsequently hurting them in a completely different fashion.
The job at hand for me now is to take a hard look at the inside, try to separate it from the ugliness it was formed in, and find me. When I do, I have to make peace with whatever is there before I can truly love anyone the way they deserve. It is a frightful journey, as I suspect I have my doubts that I am any better than my step-father. I just know I cannot live the rest of my life this disconnected from the people who love me.

Monday, March 8, 2010


I never realized how little I had until my family packed up overnight and left town. I was a senior in high school, and it was in late October. We snuck out of town, avoiding creditors I supposed, and moved 1,000 miles away. The six of us (my step-father, mother, sister, brother, large German Shepard, and me) packed into a Vega towing a small U-Haul trailer. That was it, that is all we had. The Vega was valiant, but I think the Ozarks did it in. It burned up a few weeks after we reached Oklahoma.
I was devastated when we left - we had been in the town for two years, easily three times longer than any other house I had lived in. I had made friends, and as my luck would have it, just acquired my first girlfriend. All that disappeared in a day - even after two years, nothing was certain, nothing was predictable. We moved to Oklahoma City where one of my step-father's old drinking buddies had become a manager of a furniture store. I never knew exactly what function my step-father was to serve at the store, other than slipping stuff out the back door.
I spent two months in Oklahoma City. Shortly after Christmas, I packed a suitcase and hitchhiked back to Indiana with my step-father's blessing. The contents of that suitcase remain with me to this day (two yearbooks and a small box I kept my girlfriend's letters in), and nothing else from my childhood.
I finished high school with my friends and eventually ended up back in Oklahoma near my family, as college was very inexpensive there. Without noticing, I did start to collect things - books. Before I realized it, I had hundreds of them. They are the one possessions I did not give away over the years, although my two daughters have inherited many of them in the past year. Some people I guess look at old photos, clothes, toys, etc. to define the stages of their lives. I look at these books. I see how my interests have changed, how I have matured, and the one durable thing in my life - thoughts and ideas. In hindsight though, photos might have been easier for someone who continued to move often and far.

Then Back to Amman

I had a fantastic trip to Jerusalem! I stayed (as I always do) in the Old City at a converted Austrian palace, right amongst the Stations of the Cross. It is nestled in the narrow streets and tunnels that crisscross the ancient city. I love just wandering off, looking at the shops and markets, inevitably getting lost. It's hard to describe the power of the place. After a peaceful night's sleep, I left the Damascus Gate and headed to the West Bank. I worked with UNRWA (The United Nations Relief Works Agency) to find two schools. They were fantastic and we settled on schools in the Shou'fat Refugee Camp inside Jerusalem. It was heartbreaking to see the conditions in the camp, but the people there were fantastic - I admired their spirit and professionalism. Everything went well, and I was off to Amman.
I made my way north to the border crossing, and once again, had to wait almost an hour for the bus that made the four mile trip to the Jordanian side. An old Loggins and Messina song comes back to me, "It's an hours flight, but it takes all night to get from Cairo to the Promised Land." I chatted in a mixture of Arabic and English to several men who were also waiting for the bus. I did notice a lone young man standing outside reading an English novel. Once again, I couldn't tell if he was an Arab or a Jew. Eventually, we all made it over to Jordan, through immigration and customs, emerging to try to find taxis back to Amman. As I approached a taxi, I heard a voice behind me asking me if I would like to share a taxi, it was the young man I had seen earlier.
We got into the taxi, and he introduced himself. He was an English professor at a small college north of Jerusalem. He was Palestinian, and on one of his many regular trips to visit his wife in Amman - she could not join him in Palestine. We talked, once again, about border hassles and other annoyances. Soon though, the conversation turned towards the Arab-Israeli conflict in Palestine. He was very critical of the PLO and Hamas, as well as of the Israelis. He just didn't understand the tensions and the war raging around him. He did admit that he hardly ever got to talk to an Israeli, and he lamented that the two groups didn't seem to want to learn each other's languages - how does one communicate to another, if one doesn't know the language, asked this English teacher.
The conversation was eerily similar to that which I shared with the young Israeli on the ride over. Both of these guys were intelligent, decent human beings, and they had no idea whatsoever how to reach out to each other, metaphorically or otherwise. The afternoon was even that more odd as we drove through a snow storm as we climbed up out of the Dead Sea area. We parted ways on the outskirts of Amman, and honestly, I no longer knew what to think. Here was an entire generation, much without the inherent animosity, with no tools to change the issues and conditions they despised.

To Jerusalem

I was on my way from Amman, Jordan to Jerusalem in order to find two schools that would adopt a supplemental curriculum provided at no cost by an American philanthropist. I travelled by taxi to the border, only to find that I had to reroute north to another border crossing. I was a bit annoyed but I jumped into a taxi and made the hour trip. When I got to the border crossing, I had to wait for about an hour to catch the bus that travelled one mile across the Jordan river to the Israeli crossing. While waiting, I noticed a young, thin man sitting on a bench patiently waiting as well. He appeared to be very polite and modest, and I was wondering if he was an Arab or a Jew. When the bus finally came, we sat across the aisle from each other for the four-minute ride. We didn't talk, but he smiled a lot and I suspected he was a nice guy.
After passing though immigration and customs, I found that I faced an expense taxi ride to Jerusalem. I located a driver that would take me to a nearby town where I could catch a much cheaper bus for the 55 mile trip. As the van began to pull away, the man I had seen on the bus flagged us down and joined us. I said hello and introduced myself. He was very pleasant. I asked him if he knew which bus to catch once we got to town, and he told me he would help me, as he was going to Jerusalem as well. We got to town, transferred to the bus and settled in for the long ride.
Once again, we sat across the aisle from each other in a bus. I asked him why he had been in Jordan, and he smiled and told me that he really hadn't been. By this time, he had put his yamaka back on. He told me that he had been on his way to Amman to visit a factory his firm was working with. He was an engineer specializing in solar energy technology. When he got to the Jordanian immigration, they refused him entry into the country telling him he looked too Jewish, and that he might be in danger. He was wearing a suit and tie, but I didn't see the obvious tell-tale signs, at least until he donned the yamaka. I was taken by the fact that he hadn't been upset by the ordeal, he just took it in stride.
We talked about border politics in general, how hostile the Israelis could be, and how pedantic the Jordanians had been denying him entry for his own safety. But the most fascinating part of the conversation came when he began to talk about life in general in Palestine. He found that Israeli policy was often brutal and unethical, and he didn't understand the underlying animosity. He went on to say that he lamented the fact that no one wanted to talk about the issues. He knew others felt the same way, but the only dissent he ever heard was from outside the country. He told me he knew there must be Palestinians who were also critical of their own government, but he never had the chance to talk to any of them either. It was just the way things were, and it made me sad to think that an intelligent and sensitive human being like this had no peer group to share these thoughts with, no way to create a meaningful dialogue that could be the impetus of change. I have always heard people talk cynically about the hopelessness of the conflict, but this was the first time I felt it. And I felt sorry for him.
He got off a stop early to help me find a taxi to the old city, and we only had a few seconds to say goodbye, as there was a taxi waiting. We shook hands and I marvelled at his kind smile, regaining a bit of the hope I had lost in the last hour and a half.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


I started to play golf when I was twelve years old, notice that I didn't say that I learned to play golf, that hasn't happened yet. I didn't come to the game in the usual way, I came in the back door, or more precisely, the kitchen door. My step-father had gotten to know a local golf course owner, and he would sometimes work in their kitchen. Soon my mother was helping as a waitress, and eventually, I would be washing dishes. I think I made $1 and hour. The owner's kids got me out on the course, I loved playing golf. I loved the course - it was a nine-hole public course owned by a Mexican-American family. I sometimes washed dishes, sometimes cleaned the clubhouse, and occasionally helped out on the course. I played a little bit of golf, and romped around the course - it was great. In the evening, we would go out to a pond on the course and wade in barefooted finding errant golf balls. It is amazing, the things I did for fun then that they couldn't pay me to do now! If I hadn't worked there, I doubt I would ever have picked up the game. I kept playing throughout the years when I could, and I still love the game.

Ten years ago, I learned about a local course that was a hidden treasure. It is Clearview Golf Club, the only course designed, built, owned, and operated by an African-American - William Powell. I was doubly thrilled when I found out that Mr. Powell's daughter Renee (the second African-American to play on the LPGA Tour), ran a girl's golf program. I called the course, talked with Renee, and packed my two girls in a car and rushed down. The course was just outside a small town on a lonely road that once was the pathway across the country, Highway 30 - Lincoln Highway. We got to the course, and Renee sat with us for 45 minutes. She was very gracious and excited to see my daughters. Mr. Powell came by and chatted with us as well. I was so honored, I don't think I have been as thrilled to meet anyone before and since. We felt like we were at home.

In the intervening years, I have slowly gotten more involved at the course. I have helped at outings, served on committees and as a volunteer project manager. More importantly, my family and I have become close with the Powell's and it has been very incredible. Sadly, we lost Mr. Powell this past New Year's Eve. He was a remarkable man who always, always treated me with dignity and respect. I will continue working with the course, helping Renee and Larry Powell in anyway I can.

I was lucky that I found golf, or that it found me. It is amazing to get out on a course, walk, talk, swing, swear, and just lose yourself for a few hours. No matter what is in your life when you pull up to the clubhouse, it is gone for several hours. There is no place like it on earth. To be involved with two family-owned courses has been a seminal lesson for me. To watch them love and toil, to provide access for all us to this game we can play all of our lives is truly special. They have created living monuments, something very incredible for those of us who work with ideas and thoughts. I truly envy them.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

Rita Dove

I had met Rita Dove in Ohio at a book signing event. I talked to her for thirty seconds or so, and she was very gracious. I loved her poetry and the history reflected in it. As a matter of fact, her book, Thomas and Beulah, was one of three books I took with me when I went off to Yemen as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
After three months of training near the capital city of Sanaa, I moved to the small village of Al Khawkha on the Red Sea. I moved into a shack in an Eritrean Refugee camp while helping another volunteer build a school. It was a small room with a few open windows (it only rained once in the two years I was there) and a dirt floor. I slept on a Tihama bed (named after the coastal region there), a rope bed suspended on four tall legs resting in coffee cans. The idea was to keep nasty things from climbing up into the bed. I had a thin foam mattress and a crocheted cover that the women of the camp made me. There was a small desk and chair in the room, and I had a little kerosene cooker on a stand by the bed. Life was good!
I split my time between the local village school and the camp. During the day, I taught English at the school, and would return to work on the school in the camp. Gradually, I got to know many of the families in the camp, and I spent a lot of time in the orphan section. At night, my shack would be a hangout for the children, slowly developing the courage to drop by. I would later move into a small tent, but those days in that shack were fantastic. The ladies of the camp eventually wove me straw mats, so the place became very homey. For the first six months I was there, the camp generator worked, at least for a few hours each day. I would line up the cassettes I wanted to listen to in eager anticipation. I would read, listen to music, and try to manage the growing number of children milling around in the room.
On one evening, a small group of girls (probably ages 7-9) were sitting on the floor, listening to a tape they had requested that I play. I had gone to letting various groups of kids in on different evenings. I was reading Thomas and Beulah, when I laid it on the floor, upside down. There was an audible gasp amongst the girls that startled me. They recovered and began to jabber excitedly in their language, Afar. I could only get a bit of it, so I tried to calm them down and speak to them with my slightly better Arabic. It turned out that they were very, very shocked that anyone would let a woman, let alone a black woman write a book - Rita Dove's picture was on the back of the book, staring up at them.
Once they recovered from their shock, they turned to me and demanded to know if I knew her. I tried, with my limited language skills, to explain that I had met her. It must have came out that I knew her, and they got even more excited. They sat down in a huddle, earnestly discussing a plan. One girl stood up and spoke for the group: They had decided to make some cards for this woman (it was Eid soon, an Islamic holiday) and I would send them to her. I tried to explain that I would try but was not certain, etc. but they nodded and bolted out the door into the night. Two days later I had five beautiful Eid cards on my desk.
I put the cards in the envelope and sent them to Rita Dove, c/o the University of Virginia. The girls questioned me daily if I had heard back. It was very cute, eventually I would see them coming, shake my head, and they would feign bitter disappointment. Finally, we received a response from Ms. Dove. She had received the cards, hung them two-sided on a mobile of sorts in her office. She had been delighted to get the cards and was very touched. The girls took turns with the letter, kind of a traveling trophy. They wrote back, and Ms. Dove responded. It really was a moving experience for me.
I had read articles and books about culture, race, and gender issues in college. I believed I was fairly open-minded and progressive about those sort of things. But I had no true idea of the depth and pervasiveness of these biases until I saw the look on those girls faces when that book hit the floor. I don't think I understood the concept of self-esteem until I saw them planning their cards, watched the way their confidence increased, noticed how they carried themselves around the camp. I was so taken by this, that I went back to school and studied Multicultural Education, and worked on initiatives like Girl's Empowerment in Tanzania. To this day, I still work with at-risk and underrepresented students in many types of educational settings. All this because a book landed upside down on a straw mat.

A History of Violence

Violence is at least as old as any of my memories. I can attest to this. Maybe my step-father invented it? I don't know of anything in his background or environment that would have produced the fury and anger I saw so often. And I don't think it was the alcohol - I have known plenty of people who don't go nuts when they drink, no matter how much they drink. No, it was something inside that the booze helped free. Not that he needed to drink to get ugly, but that ugliness always came out when he was drunk. Even if he was in a good mood, or temporarily charming, even then it was always just around the corner.
For awhile, when I was in the sixth grade, we attempted to play family games on Sundays. This lasted for about a month. We would begin the game (Careers, Monopoly, Almanac Trivia, etc.) and it would go well for a short time. Inevitably, my father would lose, someone would laugh at his error or bad dice roll, or one of us did just a little too well. At that point the game board would get tossed, someone would get smacked, or he would just storm off. It was years before we all gave up trying, learning that any state of decency or fun was transient - better just to avoid interaction completely, not to get sucked in.
I was told that my step-father had to leave the state while still in High School. My mother said he has slapped a nun, and his parents sent him to a boy's school in Kentucky. Shortly thereafter, he wrecked his car while drinking, killing one of his friends. Once, when I was very young, a truck driver pulled out in front of us. My step-father chased him down (risking our lives), pulled him down out of the truck, and beat him senseless in the middle of the road. When I was in high school, he worked as a lineman for the city. One afternoon it was raining and he and his crew were in the barn playing cards and drinking. At some point he got mad at a co-worker (his best drinking friend at the time) and beat him unconscious with an electric meter. That man died a few years later of brain cancer, and I don't know if it was related to the incident in the barn. I do know he thought so....
I was up in my bedroom one night listening to the radio. I noticed a car pull up outside our house and a man got out and walked up to the door. I recognized him as the man my step-father had beaten a year or so earlier. There was another man in the car, in the drivers seat. He was enormous, bald, and irritated or nervous. The car was left running. I went down stairs and my step-father and his former friend were talking in the living room. He was asking my step-father to come out and have a drink with him, to bury the hatchet. I walked over and told my step-father I wanted to talk to him. I told him of the other man in the car outside, and he looked out the window to see. It was the first time I ever saw him frightened. He told his guest he didn't feel well and after a few awkward moments the man left. My step-father told me later, while drunk, that I had saved his life. I don't doubt it, but I often regretted it.
My father never beat me unconscious, but he often hit and slapped me. He was the absolute master of the sucker punch. He hardly ever squared off and struck me. When I was younger, it was occasional, as I tried to avoid him at all costs. By the time I was twelve, I was interceding for my mother and sister, and our conflicts increased. Usually he would hit me, I would try to hit him, and he would overpower and subdue me. It was never a proper fight per se until I was older. Then, almost over night, the roles reversed. By the time I was sixteen, I could hold him off and deflect much of what he threw my way. At that point, it was me choosing not to hurt him too badly.
My step-father and I clashed several times after I left the house, but we never fought seriously again. I would go on to have a few fights with peers and strangers while in high school and college, but I never really tried to hurt anyone. My brand of violence would be inward, and would take a heavy toll on me and those around me for several years to come.
*Okay, I have stolen a second movie title - they are just better than anything I can think of.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Ghost Writing a NY Times Bestseller

In 1989 I received a rare letter while I was living in the Eritrean refugee camp in Yemen. I got my mail about every two months, and it wasn't often that I got a letter from a stranger. The envelope had been typed, and the return address was New York City. It wasn't a bill - so I was very intrigued.

I held onto the letter for a few days, and opened it on my way back from class one afternoon - I was stunned by its contents. A bestselling author (of travel books) was requesting information about my village and the refugee camp for his next book! As I read on, I couldn't believe the next request: He wanted me to go out to an island in the Red Sea and recover his diaries that he had left there when he had been shipwrecked several years before. I began to wonder if the whole thing was a hoax, but the last part of the letter gave me the opportunity to verify the legitimacy of his request.
He mentioned that he had just returned to Yemen, wanting to travel down to my village and then onto the nearby islands. He had been rescued by Eritrean fishermen those years before, hence his interest in the camp. But he told me he was denied permission to travel to the western side of the country. He spent time in the capital Sanaa, in the central region. He had met and talked to other Peace Corps Volunteers (who in turn put him in touch with me), so I knew part of the story was legitimate. These were the days before the Internet, so I had no way of knowing if he was indeed an author or if he had been shipwrecked.
I soon found out that I could only grant half of his total request: There was no way I could go out to the islands, as they were now military installations. So I decided to send him some information on the camp. He wrote back and asked for additional details. I spent some time and told him a great deal, even mentioning students and villagers by name. I mailed the second letter, and soon got engrossed in the last several months of my tour. By the time I left Yemen, I had forgotten the whole thing.
A few years later, I was working at a literacy agency back in the states. One day I picked up a Time magazine and headed off to the break room for lunch. As I was leafing through the pages, the title of a book review grabbed my attention: It was a travel book about Yemen. To my surprise, it had become a bestseller! I made a mental note of it, and returned to work. Six months later I got around to finding a copy of the book. I picked one up at the local library and skimmed through it quickly, hoping to see if and how he had incorporated my letters. I got to the middle of the book, and I literally dropped it on the floor. This travel author had not only incorporated my information, he had personalized it as well.
The book claimed that he had travelled from the capital, down to my village. The accounts I sent him were now his own experiences, right down to the names of my students. I was dumbfounded, but not for the obvious reasons. I was cynical enough not to be completely surprised by the "literary license" he enjoyed. No, it was something else that dawned on me. He recounted (invented) an episode in a nearby village (a village by his own admission he could have never have visited) where he and his Yemeni guide had come across a dead body that was being ignored by the locals. First of all, this would have never happened in an Islamic country, and second, it didn't because the author was not there to witness it, nor did he a local letter writer feeding him information from that village. What was the point of that excerpt?
Oddly enough, I gained a great lesson from this experience, one that I hadn't expected. It was obviously wrong to take my experiences and to publish them as his own, particularly in a non-fiction travel book. But to take credit for any one's work, partially or completely is equally suspect. As a leader, we often do this. Or we overestimate our contribution, failing to acknowledge the input of others. I think a good leader would supervise talented individuals and groups who would accomplish great things. Motivating, supporting, and guiding these people is a contribution of its own, worthy of a fair and balanced appraisal.
*Epilogue - I attempted to reach the author a few times shortly after I finally read his book. He never replied. Thirteen years later, with the help of the Internet, I finally reached him via email. At first he said he didn't remember me, but later did recall our interchange vaguely. He was very tentative and asked me what I wanted. I was polite and asked him for some copies of his books for a charity auction. He promptly sent me a few books.

Gin From a Milk Jug

I was eleven when my step-father first got me drunk for the amusement of his buddies. He had some friends over and we all went out on Lake Erie for the day. One of them had a boat, and another had picked up some water skiing equipment. My father brought me and a gallon jug filled with gin. It wasn't the three drunks dragging me all over the lake from behind the boat that almost killed me that day, it was the precedent they established later in the afternoon.

I enjoyed the first hour or so of the expedition - no one was drunk yet. We cruised around for quite awhile before they decided to try water skiing. Of course they never had, and I am not sure they even knew how to rig the ropes and bridal. I had no idea they had no intention of skiing themselves, that was why I was there. We tried several times to get me up on the skis. Eventually, they decided that I should stand on the end of the pier and they would slowly pull me into the water. When this didn't work, they had me move back about ten feet to get a sliding start. I bounced a few times across the concrete pier before I hit the water.
Eventually they gave up, either the novelty of the endeavor wore off, or the whole thing was just too frustrating for them. They pulled me into the boat, and my step-father told me I should have a drink, that I had earned it. I took the jug and took a big swig. I wanted to spit it out, but even at eleven, I wanted to impress them. I managed to get that first drink down and promptly took several others. The last thing I remember for awhile was their laughter.
I was lucky in a way. During that period of his life, my step-father had many acquaintances he could drink with, and it was only the odd occasion that he offered me alcohol. Later, other members of my family weren't that lucky. He needed partying buddies, but he would inevitably go into a rage and fight with or alienate them. Family members are forever.
I wish I knew why I admired my step-father when I was younger. He was my role model I guess, whether I liked it or not. As a teenager, he would often take my friends out buy beer for them. They thought I had the coolest dad in the world. I didn't drink often when I was younger, but when I did I drank a lot. I soon became proud of my prowess, and I ignored the dangerous signs there were there from the beginning.
I buried the baggage of my childhood deep inside me. It affected me obliquely in many ways, but I had it basically under control. I didn't think about, didn't feel victimized, didn't think I was screwed up. But when I drank, the darkness emerged. Like my step-father, I would drink to excess and I would go crazy. Unlike my step-father, my violence was never directed at anyone - it was more self-destructive. I would wake up the next day not understanding what had happened. It never dawned on me to figure it out, I guess I supposed drinking and anger were natural partners, and besides the one benefit of living in that household was the immunity granted anyone the day after an event.
So, for twenty-three years, my only outlet for my suppressed pain was the occasional binge and subsequent outburst. I can honestly say I never got into any significant trouble in my life when I wasn't drinking. Now, it has been seventeen years since my last drink, and I still haven't found an outlet for that pain. Perhaps this blog is a start.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

"Peace Corps Moments"

I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) twice - Jamaica 1985-1987 and Yemen 1988-1990, and I worked as an Associate Peace Corps Director (APCD) in Tanzania from 1999-2000. I don't remember when I first decided to join the Peace Corps, just seemed like I was destined to do it. I had a fantastic, brutal, fun, traumatizing, enlightening, depressing, life-changing, and incredible time. I was not a model volunteer, I made a lot of mistakes, and I had some successes. Like many experiences in my life, I rationalized my errors by my contributions. Like they were necessarily related (e.g., I made this big mistake, felt bad about it, worked twice as hard for three months to make up for it, etc.). To make matters worse, the wonderful people I worked with in those countries were very forgiving and willing to focus on the good things I did, making it easier for me to fail. I know I made a positive impact in all three places, and I know I made mistakes. But I am less inclined to weigh them together anymore, wishing instead that I could learn to avoid the errors, knowing that I could and should.
I had an idealized notion of the Peace Corps when I went in, and twenty-five years later, I still do. I met some incredible people during my tours - fellow volunteers, PC staff, host country nationals, etc. During those six years, I had many of what I call "Peace Corps Moments", those instances when the world was perfect, and I connected spiritually with the mission and people involved. There is no drug than can match it (good thing too, or this blog would be about other types of issues :) Here, in no particular order, are several of those moments that I will always treasure:
Jamaica - "Rapping in the Rain" While waking home from the orphanage I worked at, it began to rain as it often does in Montego Bay, by the buckets. There was no shelter, and I just pressed on. I soon caught up to a group of school boys who were drenched and enjoying themselves as they ambled home as well. One looked up at me and began to sing a song by Yellow Man I think. It was most likely the only song that kid knew that I was familiar with. He was shocked when I sang the second line with him. They all burst into laughter, and we walked the next mile or so together singing in the rain, soaked to the skin.
Yemen - "All's Well That Ends Well..." I was walking from the Eritrean refugee camp I lived in towards the local village. I noticed a group of Eritrean women circled around something speaking in an excited and nervous manner. They were lovely women, thin, dressed in colorful, flowing batiks. Huddled there in the desert landscape, it was if Seurat met Remington, had a few drinks, and worked together in perfect juxtaposition. I wish I could paint.... I walked over and discovered that they were standing around an abandoned well. At the bottom of the well, maybe eight feet down, were several burlap bags. These women had very little, and those bags had great value and utility for them. They were trying to reach down with sticks to no avail. I greeted them, looked down into the well and told them I could help. To their horror, I began to ease myself down into the well, feet on both sides of the well walls. I inched down until I reached the bottom. I braced myself and began to throw the bags up and out. I was very pleased with myself at that moment, as I was heroically saving the day. I should have realized that that sort of self aggrandizing sentiment is usually followed by a very humbling reality check, for me at least. As I reached down to grab the final bag, I heard a sickening cracking sound. Two thoughts crashed instantly into my head: What kind of well in the desert is only eight feet deep, and why didn't I just go into the village and buy a dozen burlap bags for a few dollars. As the false bottom of the the well began to give way I grabbed the bag and jumped up. I was able to hold myself against the wall, but climbing up was difficult. The women were frantic and began reaching down to save me, the hero. One grabbed my arm, but at about ninety pounds, began to slide in. The others grabbed her and began tugging. It must have been very comical to anyone watching. I knew I was in no real danger, but the look of desperation and determination on their faces was incredibly moving. They hauled me and the bag out of the well and we all collapsed in a heap. I raised my head, looked at them, smiled and said "no problem" in Arabic. I have never seen a group of women laugh that long and that hard since - well, at least sober women.
Tanzania - "School's Out" I was doing a workshop for Peace Corps Volunteers and their Host Country Counterparts at a college campus in the middle of the country. I did several sessions throughout the day, and I was very aware how boring some of it was for the volunteers - I had been through this twice before as a volunteer myself. But the counterparts were fantastic, they were eager to learn and soaked up everything I had to offer. Typically though, they asked no questions during the sessions. In my final session of the day, I worked just with the counterparts and had a great time. I had brought a few dozen assorted textbooks along, and handed them out during the session as rewards and incentives. It was as if I had dispersed treasure. That evening after dinner, the volunteers congregated and drifted off towards a makeshift disco. I stayed behind in the cafeteria talking to a few of the counterparts. Slowly, the others came over asking questions about things they had read in their books (most of the books were about education, and I was familiar with the content). They were very excited and before I knew it, there were at least twenty of them sitting in a circle discussing the concepts. I slowly moved out of the center of the circle and the discussion raged on. Men and women alike were talking, debating, and laughing as only a group of dedicated, caring professionals can. I interjected here and there, but they carried most of the evening's work. When I did think to look at my watch, it was 2am. We had outlasted the disco!
I have found these experiences to be very humbling. They were simple, authentic moments with great people.

The Invention of Lying

Ricky Gervais did not invent lying, I did. It happened in a confessional booth in a Catholic Church somewhere in the Midwest. I had experienced a long battle with a priest in Catechism classes (will get to that in a bit), and something gave way one day in confession. At least it was my first set of premeditated, mitigated lies. My rationale was elegantly simple: I was deeply ashamed of my sins and/or circumstances, so I figured if I told the priest I had done something worse than I actually did, I would be covered.
This turned out to be an involved process - not only did I need to itemize my sins, I had to quantify them and find feasible alternates that were just a touch worse. This was of course a great precursor for when I taught Human Nature and Ethics courses forty years later. It went on for a few months until I realized I was spending more time on this exercise than I was on my homework each week - I gave up both endeavors.
At eleven, I began my brief but heated battle with the Catholic church. I don't think I started the fracas, but once it started it did not end until my inevitable ex-communication (from Catechism class anyway). It began with a lesson on Hell, and ended with a debate over Jesus and the concept of sacrifice. I can honestly say I was trying in the beginning, but I think the devil made his way into the mix eventually, and it all became too much fun. Unfortunately, I continued to enjoy this kind of activity for far too long.
Hell - During a discussion about Hell one day, it occurred to me that the priest had insinuated that my mother might not be going to Heaven as she had been divorced. This offended me on many levels: One, I was upset that he seemed to believe that my mother was going to Hell and agreed with the judgement; and Two, I couldn't understand why he would believe I would want to go to Heaven without my mother. He tried to explain that I should be concerned with my own afterlife, and I just stared at him. Things were to get worse.
Jesus and Sacrifice - The concern over my afterlife continued with a reminder that Jesus had suffered and died for my sake, and that alone should make me want to go to Heaven. At that point, I made the mistake of doubting the level of the sacrifice. I had seen graphic images of the Vietnam war on television, and it had a profound effect on me. I told him that I didn't understand the sacrifice, as Jesus was back in Heaven at God's side after a short period of time (relatively speaking) on Earth suffering much of the same torture that millions of people had before and since. I knew my logic was flawed, but I couldn't stop myself. It was the last conversation I had with him, and my last Catechism class.
I learned two things from those encounters: Unyielding dogma is a tool from the past, there are better ways to influence and guide people, and the more specifically you spell out your faith, philosophy, or politics, the easier it is for someone to question and attack it. I continued to confront ideas and people with the same type of questions, thinking myself clever. It took me many years to realize that questions have more utility when they are designed to enhance and strengthen ideas, not to destroy them. And as Karma often dictates, it wasn't long before I was on the other end of this dynamic as a teacher, administrator, and parent.
Epilogue - Years later, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I worked with many Catholic missions in countries like Jamaica, Yemen, and Tanzania. My experiences were fantastic, and the priests and nuns I worked with were far different from the priest I had dealt with in my youth. I learned about compassion, real sacrifice*, and social justice from these people, and I will be forever grateful.

*As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Yemen, I would leave my remote village every few months to go to the larger seaport town of Hodeida. There I would unwind and spend time with friends. Every other visit or so, I would go down to the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa's order) to lend a hand. The nuns there were incredible! They were humble, austere, and passionately dedicated to the destitute Yemenis in the area. I would come by and paint a wall or fix some wheelchairs. The were very polite and pleasant, but too busy to socialize. I admired the people I met there, and hoped I could ever gain that much dignity and poise. Eight years later, a gunman attacked and killed three nuns, Sisters Tilia, Anetta, and Michaela as they were entering the compound after returning from the local hospital. He believed they were working to convert Muslims in the area. I know different.

The Maudlin Mist of Morning - Part 2

The Maudlin Mist of Morning
I, like the fog
Was born with a veil
On my face.
I frolicked with shadows
Played hide-and-seek
Through the dark corridors
Of my soul.
I saw what others could not see
In the maudlin mist of morning.
I wept. And the fog and I,
From our eclipses,
Mourned the sun.
Audrey Lee

This poem now carries a second level of significance for me, it speaks to me of depression (or is it schizophrenia, just kidding). I have discovered, to my dismay, that my mother left me with one tangible gift, a semblance at least of her profound depression. I didn't recognize if for a long, long time, but I see and feel it now. And it is worse in the mornings, in those early hours as I am almost awake. It comes as a sense of unease, of dread for nothing specific other than some ort left over from a disjointed dream. It is very real, and is immune to the particular circumstances of my life - good, bad, whatever, and it has been there for a long time. I can't imagine how my mother dealt with her depression, perhaps that is why she killed herself.

My mother committed suicide, Stephen King would say she used a "flexible bullet." She contracted a treatable form of cancer then refused medical assistance until it was too late. Medical issues had always been her form of attention-getting. She had been in and out of hospitals for physical and mental problems all of her life. She did teach me one thing, from beyond the grave - she taught me that repressed memories are real, or are possible. She had made a tape recording for me a few months prior to her death. I was angry with her for her selfish act and didn't listen to it for a few years. When I did, I learned that I don't have as much control over my mind, my memories, and my coping systems that I had once believed.

Her message was long and rambling. She was apologizing for many things, and for once wasn't making excuses for my father, abandoning her primary vocation - that of his enabler. She and my step-father invented the co-dependent concept. They were both constantly out of commission, but never, ever at the same time. Anyway, she got to a point in the tape when she began recounting a particularly terrible incident when I realized that I had forgotten or blocked it since it occurred. Suddenly, with great clarity, the memory came flooding back very vividly. It was if it had happened the day before. I was back in the bathroom trying to hold my mother's cut wrists (they must have been superficial cuts, but there was a lot of blood nonetheless) while I directed my four year old sister to go for help. I don't remember what happened next, but that memory is back with me and will never leave.

So now, I must deal openly with this legacy of depression I have inherited. It casts a pall on much of my day. I am not profoundly sad, I just don't have the excitement and sense of accomplishment that I once enjoyed. Work had always been my escape, and I could bury this malaise with projects and challenges. But now I need to deal with it. I have learned that I have not hidden this condition as well as I thought I had over the years, and that it affects the morale of those around me. No great leadership lesson here, just that a negative affect in the workplace can be far more influential than a positive one! I can no longer kid myself believing that I compensate with the other attributes I bring - I and those around me are diminished peculiarly by this phenomenon, it cannot be ameliorated.

The Maudlin Mist of Morning

The Maudlin Mist of Morning
I, like the fog
Was born with a veil
On my face.
I frolicked with shadows
Played hide-and-seek
Through the dark corridors
Of my soul.
I saw what others could not see
In the maudlin mist of morning.
I wept. And the fog and I,
From our eclipses,
Mourned the sun.
Audrey Lee

This is one of only two poems that stabbed my heart the minute I first read it. I was in a small tent in an Eritrean refugee camp reading an anthology of Black Poets when I discovered it. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Yemen, I had worked hard to get myself placed in the camp as my primary assignment. I taught English in the nearby village, and helped another volunteer build a school in the camp. For two years I lived and worked with these refugees, eating what they ate, suffering from the same health issues (typhoid, malaria, and hepatitis), and sharing their heartache as they faced a bleak, uncertain future.

I knew immediately that the poem was about the anonymity of being black in the USA. I also knew it resonated with me because of the situations of the refugees, and women in general in this Islamic country - veiled, moving silently about like shadows. But what I didn't account for was the depth of the personal connection, at least not for several years. Not until I realized that I had worn a veil all my life. This veil had kept others out and prevented me from seeing and feeling the world in its natural state. I don't think I have ever really belonged anywhere. I have enjoyed fleeting connections with others, and I am certain that I love my family, but I have never felt that I was where I belonged.

I don't attribute this lack of belonging to the experiences inside my household growing up. This uneasy truce with the world comes from the way the world perceived me as I grew up. I know how we appeared to the world then: Those half-dressed children living in the run down rental at the end of the street, dirty with snot running down their noses. Children from the house that exploded frequently in a frenzy of domestic violence. Children of a family that was best avoided. Children that made you feel better about your parenting skills, no matter who you were.

I am sure I didn't notice the way some people looked at us, but I am also sure it affected me. From an early age, I didn't appreciate authority and I came to view the USA negatively as an entity early in my teens. And although I have met many people since who did not judge me thusly, I believe I have continued to project this pity or loathing or disgust onto them, and maybe onto society itself. Consequently, I have found that I have always related to people and groups who have been marginalized somehow by society. This has made me a good advocate, at least half and advocate, for you can't advocate for others if you do not relate to those you are petitioning. I am amused by the fact that I still carry this around with me. I have been out in the world for thirty-three years, and I am no longer identifiable as that poor kid from the crazy family.

I have learned that no one should be invisible, no one should have to look at the world as a place they don't belong. I need to remember to acknowledge everyone I deal with, not just those who I feel deserve my attention. As a leader this is doubly imperative - I probably rememeber every gracious gesture given me by my supervisors/superiors over the years. These gestures shouldn't be rationed out as "bones", nor should they be used to exploit people (Paulo Freire). They don't make we weaker or vulnerable as a leader. They are more than just gratuities: They are the tools that humanize the workplace and create an inclusive enviroment for everyone.


From the age of five to the day I left home at seventeen, we lived in more than eighteen houses, thirteen cities, and I went to eleven different schools. When I tell people this, they assume I am an Army Brat. No, just the child of two mentally ill parents. My father would get into some kind of trouble, or we simply couldn't pay the rent and we would move. These were the days before credit scores, and the types of housing we inhabited varied greatly. We stayed in a three story home on the shores of Lake Erie one winter (an enormous old guest house), and found ourselves in a small dilapidated cabin the following summer. We stayed in hotels, rental homes, and occasionally with family. I never lived in a house my family owned until I was thirty-five and bought my first home. Likewise, the first new car my family owned was the one I bought at age thirty.
Obviously the key issues here were stability and consistency. But it runs much deeper than it appears: It wasn't just the lability of moving constantly, it was the anomie of everyday life that developed. When I woke up in the morning, I never knew what to expect from the day. I didn't know if my step-father would come home drunk, and if he did, if he would be in a good mood or be violent. I didn't know if my mother would be happy or deeply depressed. I didn't know if she would be going to the hospital that day, or if she would we be musing suicide. I didn't know if creditors were coming to repossess cars, household belongings, or even Christmas presents (if we got them that year). I didn't know if I would be eating steak or cornmeal mush. I did know I didn't want to be awake when my step-father got home, no matter what his mood - it would inevitably change in an instant.
I was the oldest child of three, and soon found myself taking the brunt of my father's rage, but my siblings were by no means spared. In some ways, it was probably much worse on my sister, but I will not go into that. My mother tried to defend us, and I was never beaten terribly, but I was smacked around and punched, and was subjected to an enormous amount of verbal abuse. Out of this hell arose the only rule of the household though - no matter what happened, it disappeared the next day, we never talked about anything once it subsided. To bring it up would be to invite an episode even worse.
We tried to do family things, but they almost always blew up. More often than not, family outings would be cancelled, as the money would be spent the previous night at some bar. There was never any sense of normalcy, just the occasional relief when things were quiet.
I mentioned in an earlier post that mental illness is never funny. Nor is drunkenness and violence. Sure, I see them portrayed as such in the media, but I can attest to the carnage they produce.
The legacy of this upbringing has been interesting to say the least: I kept moving once I left, working around the United States and the world. My younger brother and sister have stayed exactly where they are since they left the household those many years ago. And although I have kept moving, my two daughters have only known one house and one school system. This was important to me.
A good working enviroment should be consistent. Once people know what to expect, they can act efficaciously without fear. Too often, I think, we worry about what is right or wrong living in the moment of the decision. Relativity is just another form of inconsistency. Hope and fear dance erratically in an inconsistent system, one energizing the other until they both collapse. A consistent environment includes consensually derived goals, clear rules and guidelines, and a communicative feedback system that doesn't forget about yesterday. Most importantly, a supervisor needs to be concerned with his/her own consistent actions before attempting to standardize the actions and behaviors of others.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

F Troop

My mother and step-father met in a mental institution - they were not employed there! They were married before my fifth birthday. I have little recollection of the years leading up to their union, and I am not sure which "memories" are real and which have been placed in my mind by family members. In any event, they are relevant as they form the foundation of my intellect which has guided my decision making processes for the past 45 years. The "pre-history" I am about to relay is probably a combination of real memories and the actualization of recounted stories. Or, as my grandfather used to say, "If it ain't true, it ought to be."
My mother had married my father when she was 17, pregnant with me. I have been told she had mental issues from an early age, and that the marriage was an act of rebellion on her part. Evidently, they had four very tumultuous years. I have very few memories or images of my father, other than a tall man fishing with me. One memory, or pseudo memory came from my maternal grandmother. She told a few years later that I had saved my mother's life. She said I had gone into my parents' room to find my father putting pills into my mother's mouth as she lay unconscious. I asked him what he was doing and he told me he was saving her life. Evidently I went into the other room and called my grandmother extolling his deeds. She called the police and an ambulance, and my parents were divorced a short time later. Now I can visualize this event clearly in my mind, but the construction of the event seems far too mature for a child of 4 or 5. My mother had a breakdown and ended up in the aforementioned institution, and I don't think I saw my father again.
Meanwhile, up the road a bit, my step-father was having his own issues. My mother told me years later that he had come home to his family (wife and two kids), and flew into a violent rage. He began beating his wife, and in order to stop him, his brother came over and shot him in the leg with a rifle. He was divorced shortly thereafter. He was a large, violent alcoholic who suffered from his own demons. He ended up in the same hospital for different reasons.
My mother and step-father got together soon after arriving at the hospital, and I do remember visiting them both. On one occasion, we could not see him as he and his roommates had seized control of their dorm (a bloodless coup that was quelled quickly) and hung a sheet from a second story window with the words "F Troop" written on it. It was twenty or more years before I appreciated the irony of that metaphor.
What I have learned from that amusing gesture (a group of mentally ill men adopting the moniker of a slapstick sitcom) is that no matter how cute or poignant the manifestations of mental illness can be, they are never funny. The sometimes charming rogue who led his peers in revolt would become a real life entity in my life, and he brought no humor to me for the next twelve years.
So, the manic-depressive alcoholic met his depressed suicidal second wife, and the fun was about to begin.............