I’m feeling thankful for some lessons I’ve learned, and it’s only right that I express my gratitude.
I’m grateful to my in-laws for helping me understand that their concept of “family” is similar to what I learned as a child. The rollicking adventures of verbal abuse, taking advantage of others for a profit, and a pervasive sense of enraged entitlement give me a comforting sense of consistency. What a warm feeling.
I’ve especially enjoyed the holidays during the last couple of decades because that’s when my mother-in-law’s affectionate verbal punishments ramp up. It’s such a joy to be a punching bag, and when I pop back up like one of those inflatable clowns in a playroom, there she is like a champ, ready to pop me another one. Kapow! What fun.
I’m also grateful that my brothers-in-law have pointed out that I’m a greedy jerk for being upset that they didn’t pay the money they owe us, as they scampered off with a fat payday at our expense. They were correct to tell me, “You’re all about the money, Cindy.” What wisdom.
I’ve learned great lessons from my in-laws, especially about my own shortcomings. And even though I don’t speak to most of my biological family, it feels like I never left the hornets’ nest. What a cozy feeling of hearth and home.
I’m doing great with my commitment to hating spring. Last night I arrived at the portion of the program where I stay up too late on a work night, drinking vodka and watching such springtime classics as Natural Born Killers and Marilyn Manson videos.
It’s my own seasonal festival where I celebrate hating the world and myself, and somehow I revel in it.
I’m also feeling proud that I only missed, by one month, my most recent prediction of Paul’s youngest brother’s (let’s call him “YB”) latest Pabst-induced call to howl, “my life isn’t what I want it to be and why aren’t you fixing it and by the way you never call or visit me and that makes me mad even though I never take the initiative to contact you and also fuck that damned Cindy for causing all of my misery, starting twenty years before you and she even met, or the Big Bang, whichever came first.” Again, I paraphrase.
These conversations typically happen about twice a year, and even when I haven’t spoken to the guy for two years, somehow I’ve got the power to flush his life down the toilet. I feel mighty. Paul tries to tell him, “Cindy’s got nothing to do with this,” but to no avail. It’s flattering having someone obsess about me, I suppose.
I don’t feel cruel about this, and I do hope that someday the kid can pull himself together. It’s tough watching an intelligent person—and probably someone who’s got niceness buried below a six-mile layer of rage—destroy themselves. I know because I look in the mirror every day and yell, “Augh! What the fuck is that?”
But I can’t afford to care too much or get overly involved. I did that a long time ago, and I was rewarded with many late-night rage calls punctuated by the sphsss of beer cans being opened and honest-to-God growling.
(And before you start judging me for being judgmental about drinking, I refer you to the first paragraph.)
I’m mostly just indifferent and a little amused by the accusation that I’m destroying someone’s life, sort of like a wealthy person who makes small wagers at the track. There’s a little surge of adrenaline when I bet on the lead horse, but then it’s pretty much a meh after that. My predictions are usually spot on, but they don’t add much joy to my life.
On the plus side, just when I’m feeling crappy about life and wishing I cared enough to do better for myself, here comes YB to remind me how badly a person can trash themselves.
I have a herd of crickets following me, just waiting for the next awkward conversation moment I create. I wonder if a new eyeglass prescription would change this by helping me see the world like most other people seem to view it.
Like the time in Paul’s late father’s hospital room right after he had a quintuple bypass. Peter lay on the bed, hugging his heart-shaped coughing pillow, surrounded by his wife, three sons, and me.
Well, he wasn’t surrounded by the youngest one, who’d elected once again to make a serious situation about himself, this time sliding down the wall to sit on the floor “because I might pass out oh how I hate hospitals is everyone paying attention to me now? Good because no one knows my pain no one’s ever suffered as I do even starving children in third-world countries have no clue what pain is and here I am swimming in free money from a massive trust fund, white, male, and American. Dad who?” Or something like that. I paraphrase.
Although grateful for not being the only weirdo in the room, I tried to break the subsequent uncomfortable silence by Florence Nightingale’ing over to Peter’s bedside and asking if I could get him anything. He said he was fine.
I looked down at his table and saw a plastic cup with little numbered marks on it and thought, “That’s interesting. They measure how much water he drinks.”
Figuring fluid intake must be important to his doctors, I picked up the container and offered to get him a drink. I instantly knew there was a problem because the crickets began clearing their throats on a Wagnerian level, and the humans became mannequins, eyes bulging.
Ever the courteous Englishman, Peter declined as Paul whispered, “That’s his pee cup, Sweetie.”
Upon reconsideration, I prefer my eyeglasses the way they are.
Discussion question: Do crickets gather in herds? Gangs? Choirs?
I fucking hate this season. Every year I’m bewildered by all the sunshine and cheerful people dancing around and saying pointless things like “Isn’t this weather great?” I always smile and say, “Yes, it is!” but I don’t mean it. I miss the gray skies and drizzle.
Much like my fear of Seuss, though, I don’t usually volunteer my loathing of spring to just anyone. (Except, apparently, the entire Internet.) When I do, they keep an eye on me as they slowly back away, then run down the street as though they’re on fire. Or headed to put out a fire. Or maybe start a fire.
I’m not sure why I get into this annual funk, but I suspect my parents waited until the end of each winter to do their most exciting parenting. Perhaps the sun and warmer weather reinvigorated their feisty tendency to punch each other. Maybe this was their unique way of celebrating spring instead of hunting for Easter eggs, dancing around maypoles, and saying prayers to a guy who rose from the dead.
If I were to give their spring traditions a name, I’d call it “Punch-a-Palooza.” That sounds festive, and I think if I’d been culturally sensitive as a kid, I could have appreciated their customs more.
I got tired of celebrating these rituals decades ago, but I don’t feel any remorse about not keeping them alive. Evidently I used up all my guilt when I became an ex-Baptist.
But I actually do revel in my own way. My spring festival is “Reverse-Punch-a-Palooza.” When someone remarks on the beautiful weather, I celebrate by refraining from laying them out before they can put a period on the end of the sentence.
Maybe I’m like a high priestess of Reverse-Punch-a-Palooza. I wonder if the position comes with a cool outfit and a scepter. Maybe even a crown.
The first joint my mother ever rolled, she gave to me when I was fifteen. She enjoyed spoiling me, and even though I was an only child, I appreciated it. Like when she’d go to the store and remember to pick up my favorite brand of cigarettes.
But it wasn’t all about coddling. She was a consistent disciplinarian too. She used to say, “I don’t mind buying you the cigarettes, but I don’t want to see you smoking until you’re eighteen.” She knew the right things to say to make me feel loved.
Every time I got ready to leave town for the weekend with my boyfriend, Rockey, she said, “Leave me a note telling me what city you’re going to. That way I know where to tell the cops to start looking if you disappear.”
Mom taught me a lot about enjoying life too. One night Rockey and I bumped into her at a New Year’s Eve party hosted by a local ambulance company. She was a sheriff’s dispatcher at the time, so she had lots of buds in the emergency-related business. But I’m not sure how Rockey and I ended up there, and Mom was surprised to see us.
I thought I was in big trouble, but Mom was as cool as ever. She laughed, patted me on the back, and bought us a round of drinks. Then she waved a cheerful goodbye to us as we jumped into Rockey’s car to chase one of the ambulances and visit the latest car wreck scene.
But Mom wasn’t just focused on fun. She felt it was important to teach me valuable life skills. One of the best lessons was how to cope with problems by running from them, even if you have to flee the country, which she eventually did years later at age sixty-seven. She knew how to walk the talk.
I’m a fairly quick learner, and I devoted myself to honing this skill for decades. I found that running from my problems can lead to many thrilling moments in lots of different states with tons of interesting strangers. I can’t count the number of times I had the opportunity to learn different job skills, live in different apartments, and even fear for my life. What an adventure.
Mom also taught me to appreciate youth. Shortly after she came out that summer, she started dating the slightly older sisters of girls in my high school class, and she taught me the value of community when she brought them home to meet me.
But probably the best lesson she taught me during this time came in 1976. Right after I turned sixteen, Mom and I noticed that there was always a giant, bright-blue Cadillac parked across the street from our house. The driver looked like a garden gnome in a pale blue polyester suit, and he would just sit there, staring straight ahead.
Turns out the guy was a detective that Dad hired to follow us around because he got the crazy idea that Mom wasn’t taking good care of me. He was concerned about the situation because he wanted to stop paying the seventy-five dollars a month in child support.
It’s understandable that Dad was so upset. When I was twelve, he had invited me to meet him at a local Kmart coffee shop to renegotiate my child support with me. It had to be frustrating to him that even though I brought zero negotiating skills to the table, I couldn’t be talked down to nothing because I couldn’t think of anything to say.
But Mom always came through in a difficult situation, and she had a plan to deal with Dad and his detective. She sat Rockey and me down and said, “If you two were married, Cindy would be emancipated as an adult. Then her dad can’t legally bother her anymore. Plus he can stop paying child support, so that should make him happy.” You can’t buy wisdom like that.
The next day, Mom, Rockey, and I piled into his 1972 primer-grey Ford Pinto and drove the nine hours from Santa Maria, California to Las Vegas. At the courthouse, Mom fudged a little on the documents and told the court that she had sole custody of me and she approved the marriage. I was learning so much.
Then at seven-thirty in the morning, the three of us went to a little chapel on the Las Vegas Strip, woke up a bleary-eyed, hung-over preacher, and Rockey and I got married.
After we drove back to Santa Maria, Mom wasted no time further embracing life. With me finally married and independent, she was at last able to hit the open road as an interstate truck driver.
We all lived happily ever after, so I suppose it’s just the typical childhood story you’ve heard a million times. I just wanted to honor Mom and Dad for how much they cared about me.
I’ve been thinking about when I was ten, and my mother was teaching me how to drive. She was great about finding activities we could use to bond.
Those were the days where if I’d crashed the car into someone else, there’d be some insurance issues, but people didn’t speed-dial their attorneys for every little insult. I didn’t crash this time, though, and that’s a good thing because Mom generally avoided having insurance.
I got a real taste for driving after these early lessons. Most summers when my visit with Grandma Valleley came to an end, Mom would take a nap in the back seat as I drove the three hours home. That was a blast.
Another cool thing Mom taught me was how to road-rage. She was an innovator of sorts because we didn’t even have an official name for this hobby back then. I remember many coaching sessions on the freeway where she taught me how to carefully tailgate someone, then zigzag around a bunch of cars, leaving some poor sucker trapped in traffic.
We had many warm moments where we’d laugh as Mom asked, “Did you see that guy’s face? Wow, is he angry! Good job!” All that positive reinforcement made me feel so proud.
I quickly developed a habit of snagging car keys when people weren’t around, like the time Mom was out on a date. I was twelve, bored, and home alone, so I took her Plymouth Satellite for a spin around the neighborhood.
It was pitch black out except for the occasional streetlamp, so I was careful. I drove about two miles an hour, and I kept the headlights off so that the cops wouldn’t see me. The car was dark grey, so I sort of blended into the night. This seemed sensible.
When I was trying to turn around to head back to the house, I almost hit a parked boat, but I got back to the driveway okay. About twenty-five years later, I told Mom about this adventure, and she was shocked. I honestly don’t know why. It wasn’t as bad as the time I took my friend Sharon’s parents’ Cadillac out for a joy ride.
Sharon’s mom and dad had gone on a two-month summer vacation and left Sharon in charge of everything. I was staying with her for a while because Mom had kicked me out of the house because I needed kicking out. Sharon was sixteen and had a driver’s license, and I was fifteen with five years of driving experience, so it was a setup for success.
One night at about two in the morning, I got hungry for a warm salted pretzel from 7-Eleven, which happened a lot that summer. I woke Sharon up to ask if she wanted anything, but she just told me where the car keys were and went back to sleep.
As I parked in the store’s lot, a patrol car pulled in behind me. The officer said one of my headlights was out of adjustment, so he wanted to let me know. He didn’t feel like doing the paperwork for an official ticket, but he did want to see my license, which was funny because I didn’t have one.
Fortunately he was able to take me to the local sheriff’s station, where my mother was working that night as a dispatcher. Mom’s face was full of grave concern, and her tone was way more serious than I was used to, so I was a little worried about how much trouble I was in.
The officer told her that I was a “polite little lady,” and he would just let me off with a verbal warning.
After he left, I braced myself for being grounded, but Mom started laughing and told me what a silly I was for getting caught. Then she gave me a ride back to Sharon’s place. She was cool like that.
It’s been decades since I last honored her teachings by road-raging, but I still appreciate these warm memories.
I’ve developed a new psychiatric disorder: Dysfunction Envy.
The other day I started reading The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr. In her introduction, Karr relates an anecdote about bullet holes in her mother’s kitchen walls. This is on the first page, and she hasn’t even started the memoir portion yet. What a hook.
Although I’m enjoying the book, I’ve fallen into a funklet (not bad enough to be depression, but I’m not giddy either). I’ve recently written a few things I’m not happy with, which is okay. I don’t mind trashing or savagely editing stuff. But for some reason, Karr’s book has me worried.
Have I run out of dysfunctional material to mine for my memoir? Is my nine-month class this fall going to consist of me sitting there, doing nothing, while my classmates turn their trauma into gold? Where’s the gunplay in my story?
Then I remembered that time when I was twelve, and I found the .22 pistol that Mom kept under her pillow, loaded, with the safety off. For my protection.
As you know, I’m not able to offer much defense for my parents’ exciting decisions, but there was an incident that caused her to believe that a loaded firearm in our house was the best choice for her daughter. I’ll talk about that situation another time.
So I’m standing in the living room with the pistol aimed at my piano. My finger’s on the trigger. The whole room’s in soft focus except for the piano, and everything gets quiet like our house is made out of a giant pillow fort.
When I decide to pull the trigger, it occurs to me that if I shoot the piano, I might not be able to practice my lessons, and my teacher will be disappointed in me.
As the rest of the room becomes visible again and the sounds of the world return, I switch the safety on the pistol so that at least it won’t blow Mom’s head off while she’s sleeping, and I tuck it under her pillow.
I never told her how close I came to shooting the piano, mostly because she was busy with Glen, the womanizing truck driver she pretended to marry in Tahoe, who later left her for a gum-smackin’ poodle groomer with a platinum up-do, frosted nails and lipstick, and leopard print miniskirts. Her reason for the sham marriage is part of yet another story.
I also believe Glen was Mom’s last-ditch effort to be heterosexual, and that leads to another story for another time.
The tales I’m telling now are reminding me of so many I’ve forgotten, and there’s no evidence that this twisted river will run dry in the near future. What a relief. It seems I’ve got what it takes to compete in Dysfunctiondome.
Just over two decades ago, I was fortunate to work with Stephanie, an outspoken lesbian who decided to coach me out of my foolhardy bisexuality. One day she declared, “You need to pick a side.” For about thirty minutes, she chewed me out gently educated me, concluding with “You’re really a lesbian who’s too afraid to admit it.”
This was a revelation to me. I had no idea I’d been living a life of such hypocrisy. She also pointed out that my boyfriend was just cover for my lie and that I needed to dump him.
He’s my husband now — regular readers will recognize him as the long-suffering St. Paul — and we’ve been hanging out since 1995. Most days I like him a lot, so I’ve decided to stick around and live the lie.
My mother’s also a lesbian. She gamely tried wearing dresses, high heels, and bouffant hairdos in the 1960s, but she always seemed more comfortable in men’s clothes. She could drive a big-rig truck, fix the garbage disposal, and run an offset printer at our family’s business. She was part-mother, part-handyman, which was cool because my father was usually asleep or having affairs or something. He was a busy guy, and we respected that.
A long time ago I had to let my mother know that I needed to say a fond farewell to her and my father so that I could reluctantly give up the thrilling suicidal ideations I was experiencing because of their violent exciting marriage.
Mom always had great empathy and insight, and I appreciated that. When I told her what I needed to do, she sensibly asked, “I’m too butch for you, aren’t I?” I mean, she could get right to the heart of something every time, and she had a knack for seeing another person’s point of view.
When I reminded her that I’m bisexual, and butch/femme concepts don’t matter to me, she was spot on with her understanding words: “Yep. I thought so. I’m too butch for you.”
These two women taught me a valuable lesson about labels. Probably.
I’ve been chastising myself lately, and not in a fun, sexy way.
It’s about money management. I keep wondering why it’s taken me half a century to focus on financial responsibility in a somewhat grown-up way. My mother modeled great fiscal behavior, and my father offered sound advice, but I suppose when we’re young, that sort of thing doesn’t get through.
My mother taught me how to stick to a grocery list, fiercely, so that I could plunder the impulse purchase area at the grocery checkout. This resulted in a lot of quality time with my dentist.
And when I was fifteen, she was generous enough to hook me up with the guy who had the best pot prices in town. There’s no sense in overspending when you can avoid it. Such an important lesson.
My father didn’t model anything until his last years of life, when he married a woman who took him from the edge of bankruptcy to wealth (and back to bankruptcy and a fatal level of debt without his knowing it; he died believing he was a rich guy. She was a great wife and stepmom, bless her).
He did offer several pieces of monetary and general life advice, though:
“Marry someone safe, and be a secretary.”
He offered this advice when I was ten. For years after this statement, I thought of myself as a rebel. No way was I going to do what my father said – until I married an Air Force officer and became a secretary. But I was steadfast in my belief that his words had no influence on me. Such an unappreciative daughter.
“If you want to go to college, get a scholarship.”
He tossed this ditty at me as he strolled through the living room and disappeared down the hallway, and he lovingly allowed me the room to figure out what a scholarship is. I was also ten with this one, so there was plenty of time to research it.
He had a habit of offering life tidbits as he was passing through rooms.
“You should take up the clarinet” was one. He was thoughtful enough to suggest this when I was wearing braces. I remember lots of tears. Probably of joy.
“You should take up stamp-collecting,” whoosh, gone. Although this is possibly the most boring sport in the history of humankind, there is a bonus: I learned what “philately” means. It’s an awesome Scrabble power word, and someone always insists on challenging it.
“Buy real estate from women who just became widows. They’re vulnerable and ready to sell at any price.”
I was so lucky to be thirty-two when he imparted this one – and even luckier that he didn’t leave the room this time, so we could finally have a great father-daughter talk. I could appreciate the point he was making even though I didn’t fully grasp the wisdom of it in the moment.
We were sitting in his den, waiting for his mother’s wake to begin, so my grandma’s death was pretty much on my mind. My father and I were getting into the innocuous sort of chitchat that happens right after death, kind of catching up on family members. He mentioned that my stepbrother was going to visit Seattle.
I said, “Oh, Ricky will love it. It’s so beautiful.”
Dad said, “Yeah, and I told him he’s going to find great pussy there.”
Instead of berating myself, I’m going to appreciate that I’m now paying attention to my finances and be thankful for the nurturing guidance of two caring parents.
"I've always found paranoia to be a perfectly defensible position." – Susan Lowenstein, The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy