Last weekend, I had a long conversation with a very nice lady named Nancy. She spoke about her son at great length, and she asked me to speak about my father, which I did despite getting pretty choked up. There were wonderful, and terrible, parallels to their lives and deaths - they both died about same time, both young, both musicians and artists. Like her, I wound up inheriting my father's legacy, managing his art and works and things. And she said something very interesting: "When your heart is so scarred, its sometimes hard to see what is right in front of you."
I think the time of Thanksgiving is perfect to meditate on this, what she said, because there was a strange, deep resonance to this comment, and I knew it was worth thinking about.
In my mind's eye, I see a human heart made of clay, deep grooves dug in vertical lines throughout its surface. Little trenches, where the daily battles take place. Constant little wars. Constant sandbagging. You want this war to end, but nobody is giving up. And because you don't know the enemy, everyone is a potential foe, every word a potential grenade.
What are you protecting? I ask that, to myself. Who are you protecting? I would imagine I am protecting what is mine: the memories, stories, the moments, surprisingly precious and fragile, sometimes faded and washed out, sometimes bright and vibrant. I don't want these to degrade. I would love to share them with the world, but there is that fear that if I let them free to fly, they'll never return, never be the same. They'll no longer be Mine.
But more importantly, What are you keeping out?
The heart is no more the size of a fist. Its finite. It can only handle so much before it breaks. It has four chambers working in unison, filling and emptying from birth til death. It thumps like a living drum. I think of a medicine drum, keeping beat with the Other. The heart races, skips, bursts - even when we're still, its always dancing. Even the most scarred of hearts keeps a beat.
If you've ever had your heart broken, you know that horrible feeling, that pain that shoots like a bolt through the heart and into the ether. True heartbreak is a pain like no other. Those who have lived through it, through the loss of love, of a friend, companion, family member, even the very land they call home, its a process, a path where every step, every beat, is agony, leaden. Color can literally drain from life. Sometimes you feel like a bit of your soul has been torn away, fluttering off like a scrap of tissue. When you're in the thick of it, you don't know if it'll ever end.
People who've endured heartbreak don't realize how brave they are to walk through that fire and come out the other side. It's a birthing rite. What we fear, I think, is to let more love in. The enemy in this war, I think, is love itself. Can I endure another heartbreak? Well, yes, I think, but we have to view our hearts a little bit differently. It's not an isolated entity; its designed to move, move blood through the body, to nourish the entire being. On a higher level, I think we are all connected, all these little beaters beating together, making this celestial song. The heart is not meant to be a warground, to be shut up and away from the world, fought over.
I think when Nancy said what she said, what she meant was that in the act of protecting the heart, we miss the very medicine to initiate the peace process. We don't see that white flag, we turn from the olive branch handed to us.
What if the love is poisoned? Well, in the body, our system is cleverly designed to process poisons through the liver and kidneys, driven by the beat of the heart. And the blood is cleansed. And yes, there will be people and things that will hurt you, test you, but there is also an abundance of love out there meant to nourish you, and the war can end, if you trust the strength of the heart.
So on Thanksgiving, instead of preparing for war, I think instead of releasing the dove. Someone might say a thoughtless comment at dinner, or I might notice an injustice on the wet, cold streets as I pass by on the way to my sister's lovely house. Lay down your rifle! Sit with it a second, notice the heart is still beating, still keeping time with the song all the other beaters - including those who are scarred or poisoned - play. Notice the warmth in your chest.
I think about my dad, the friends and family that are gone. The illness I've endured over the years, and the illness people I care about are enduring now. All the things that broke my heart, that started all the trench building. I can feel the poison, the pain, its there, but when I let the love in, it seems to neutralizing it, takes the sting out. The love comes in many forms: a funny story, a wagging tail of a dog, dew drops on a leaf. A really great piece of pie. Dad loved pie.
The irony of it all is when we protect our hearts, we are keeping out the very thing that heals it. And Nancy is right: its often right there, in front of you.
At least back in the 70s, the concept of a babysitter was pretty simple: you had to have a pulse.
Because my dad was a musician, for the most part he was around the house during the day, and my mom at home at night. But every once in a while they would need to leave us kids in the care of someone, and for the most part, Grandma was the first choice. They could dump us off at Grandma's indefinitely; after all she had the extra bedroom that was once an uncle's should my parents stay out all night, which occurred sometimes if they both went to a rock show or something. We loved Grandma's house. Grandma let us eat sugar by the spoonfuls, she had a Hammond organ that I relentlessly played Chopsticks on, a creek behind her place with tadpoles to collect, and its where Grandpa taught me chess and how to smoke a pipe on the rare occasion he wasn't out golfing or watching football.
Grandma and Grandpa were still relatively young (I didn't think so then, but they were in their 40s) and often traveled or had evening plans, so on the occasion we couldn't go there, my parents had to find alternatives. Now, I need to explain my parents a little here... my dad was a rock musician, and the first of his peers to become a parent. When his bandmates were doing whatever young 20 year old guys do when they don't have a real job and want to be musical gods in a lumberjack town like Seattle, my dad was home changing diapers, picking up Barbies and Playdough stuck to the carpet, and begging God for 20 minutes of sleep, locked in the bathroom away from the screeching. My mom was the primary breadwinner, scoring glamorous jobs in the world of office administration. They were young and hip but saddled down with two small children, one of which had chronic health problems (surprisingly, not me). If my dad got sick, or they had the chance to get out together, their only prerogative for a caregiver was that he or she knew how to work a phone, had two arms, and was conscious. Beyond that, it was pretty much Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
Most of the help was culled from the local music scene. I have early memories of KOL rock DJ Burl Barer being stuck managing my ass for a few hours at a time. Burl was my dad's band manager, and he and his then-wife Britt often took the reigns for my parents, usually in the daytime. Burl was physically there, made sure we didn't drink poison or stab family pets but other than that, he kept himself busy with whatever busy DJs do when tethered to small children as a favor, but would rather be somewhere else. Britt was more attentive, but as a health food fanatic I recall dreading when the pair of them showed up; she inevitably had some kind of nine-grain, tofu infused granola crap with her we would be forced to eat. Mostly though, I recall them using our kitchen table to canoodle, under the assumption small children don't get what goes on, nor have any kind of hearing capacity. Now mom knows why dinner post-Barers was usually some kind of oppositional trial with me.
Another memorable babysitter was a lady named Suupi, her real name Jean Christensen. She was a tall lady, and worked as a stage manager and befriended my dad. Suupi was a lady wrestler from a family of notable wrestlers, but also worked as a seamstress in the rock world, christened "Suupi" by the great Alice Cooper after she designed his trademark eye makeup.
Tiny children were foreign to Suupi; we were underfoot and moved fast. I recall one day she came over to tend to us kids while my dad suffered the flu and my mom was at work. My sister and I were in the tiny kitchen of our crappy Mercer Island bungalow as Suupi was boiling water, something equally foreign to her. My sister was maybe 10 months old and not quite walking, and scooted around in one of those (now illegal) toddler walkers, those wheeled things that when combined with the mind of a 10 month old, makes for a parental challenge. I was sitting on the ground, drawing.
Oh, and off to the side of the kitchen stood an open door to the basement cellar. Yeah, you know where this is going.
Perhaps a demon from the depths of Hell called out to Robyn, lovingly nicknamed Baby Kong by family friends. Who knows what compelled her to spin around and beeline for the cellar door, but I looked up as she skidded into her 180 and tore for the cellar. I don't know what held my tongue for the first couple of seconds, but I just sat and watched until she reached the threshold, then calmly alerted Suupi, "Thoopee, Wobbin's goin' down tha stare-ers."
Suupi spun around just as Robyn tipped over the edge and I could hear the rhythmic wumpwumpwump of the walker hitting every step. It was momentarily quiet before the final WUMP and Suupi screamed at the exact moment Robyn's little muffled wail traveled up from the dark abyss below. I went back to my drawing.
All this screaming alerted my dad from his death bed and he stumbled into the kitchen like a snotty tornado, bloodshot eyes wide open. What the hell?? He looked at me, then caught a glimpse of Suupi, still screaming, racing down the stairs. He sighed and followed her down. A few moments later they brought Kong back up, a gigantic goose egg on her forehead. Suupi was a blubbering mess, and asked to go home. She never came back.
Despite her vows to never care for children again, Suupi did wind up marrying Andre the Giant a few years later. She told me that despite that horror show, she always loved the name Robyn and named their daughter Robin after my sister. To note, Robin grew up without a scratch.
Some of my favorite babysitting moments were with my dad's bandmates; often dad had to drag one or both of us to practice if he couldn't find any local kids to watch us. Musicians are basically gigantic children, and I was fortunate to have these uncles often willing to stop what they were doing to toss me up in the air, or give me drumsticks and let me smash things. Playing catch, tag, or tickle fests were common, and they never tired of the millionth crappy Knock Knock joke a four year old could cough up on repetition. The practice studio was a place of wonder, so many knobs to turn, cables to plug/unplug, pedals to step on, strings to pluck! My dad would play Bad Cop and tell me to sit tight in the corner and draw for a while so they could work, but the guys never seemed to mind whenever my energy could no longer contain itself and I would jump up and juggernaut into a set of lanky legs for an impromptu wrestle match.
There was only one babysitter I was not fond of, a neighbor lady named Bonnie. Bonnie was in her late twenties, did not seem to have a job of note and was terribly obese. Bonnie was unkempt and slow; I've never met anyone who seemed permanently stuck in slow motion. Her favorite word was "bummer". Everything was a "bummer".
Bonnie did not own a comb. I don't mean metaphorically, either. She had long, frizzy brown hair that was not quite one enormous dreadlock. I had never met an adult with hair so bad. It bothered my little sister so much that one evening Robyn emerged from our bathroom with a wide-toothed comb in hand, determined to take a shot at Bonnie's mop. Bonnie's sloth-like protests were no match for Baby Kong, who lept up onto the arm of the couch and attacked Bonnie's head with the comb. Bonnie could not reach for the comb as it plunged into her hair with the force of a freight train. My mouth dropped open at the site of the comb AND my sister's hand getting caught in the hair like a greasy web, my sister tearing and yanking away, Bonnie's slurring "heeeeeyyyyyy, oowwwwwwww", and finally hearing the snap of plastic as the comb actually broke in two. My sister was able to get her hand out, but the comb was forever lost, like the Titanic to the Atlantic. I doubt James Cameron could even imagine a resurrection scenario for that poor comb.
I had the regular stream of teen babysitters, some better than others (I loved the one who let me crank call people). I was fortunate that most of my babysitters were simply well intended goofballs, but the 1970s gave way to the sobering reality that kids really do need more than a toilet and a bed to crash on. Nowadays, "safety" is the calling card of the parent. As it should be. However, I can "safely" say that you will never read stories anything like this from the future blogs of today's children. And that's kind of a shame.
Seven years ago I had emergency surgery to relieve a condition called spinal stenosis. This is when the discs in your spine collapse inward rather than outward (which is normally a bulging disc). Two of mine, up in the cervical area, had collapsed onto the spinal cord and I started losing my motor skills, slowly at first, then suddenly really rapidly. My spine surgeon estimated full paralysis within two months if I didn't get the surgery - not something you want to hear - so in I went for a double spine fusion three days after diagnosis.
Despite a mishap with the Mayfield clamp - that's a clamp that screws into your skull to hold you still, and one of the screws slipped and mashed up a muscle in my head - the surgery was successful. I was told I was wheeled out of the recovery room demanding my two deflated discs in a mason jar.
I recall being in a lot of pain despite a morphine drip, and I couldn't walk. I was told this would subside within a day, but something was clearly wrong, and within a short time I discovered I couldn't move my right side. Even my face was slack. Naturally I freaked out, and meanwhile the pain in my neck and head intensified, and soon after my room was swarmed with doctors and nurses and I was hustled into ICU. It appeared that my brain and spinal cord were swelling - we didn't know it at the time, but I had Addison's Disease and this was the result of an adrenal crisis. Basically, my brain was bursting.
The doctors responded swiftly and within a few days I regained my mobility and the swelling was under control. I was able to learn how to walk with a walker and I was happily discharged, although my doctors were a little bewildered with my unusually slow recovery. Normally people are back to normal within a couple weeks, but it took me over a month, and even then, I was having inflammation problems. One of my doctors wised up and did a cortisol test - I scored 0. Several additional tests later, the diagnosis of Addison's was laid on me. Yay.
I was finally able to go back to work that December at Krab Jab Studio, and we had an upcoming art show opening. I'm used to these kinds of events, which can bring in a lot of people, and I was looking forward to it, like I always do. I was tired and a bit forgetful, not a big deal, even understandable. However, I was a little bit perplexed at some odd interactions cropping up suddenly.
Artists were dropping by to say hi, or drop off art, and I simply had no idea who they were when they came calling. At first I thought maybe I was just tired, but it kept happening, and then it was happening at roller derby practice, which I was coaching at the time. I was mixing up skaters, and without seeing their jersey numbers I was having a hard time figuring out who was who. Then it started happening all over the place: people would say hi or smile at me, strangers, and I couldn't figure out who they were. A few folks called me on it ("Julie, what's with the stinkeye? Are you mad at me?").
It came to a head at the art opening. We had our usual crowd, and many of them were regulars. My job is to greet people, chat, talk about the art, introduce the artist to people. But this time something was clearly wrong. I was introducing myself to friends, I was brushing past regular buyers without acknowledgement. I had no trouble recognizing my studio mates, but everyone else -- without a clear identifier (a signature hat, hair color, voice), I was lost.
I spent the latter part of the evening hiding in a corner, mortified.
Turns out the brain swell did some damage - I had developed what is called prosopagnosia, or face blindness. The lower right side of my brain took the brunt of the swelling, and that's where facial recognition is located. For some reason people I knew prior to the surgery I had no problem recognizing, but anyone I met afterwards, or if I didn't know them very well before the surgery, my brain just couldn't figure out who they were. I couldn't even drum up their image in my memory, their face would be a smear. As an artist, this was particularly distressing.
After the opening, I became very anxious and avoided as much social interaction as possible. I was really embarrassed I couldn't recall people, and I'm such an easy read, it seemed like every interaction I had with someone was awkward. Are you a stranger or friend? I was repelled by people coming up to me, I dreaded any kind of interaction at this point. I was pretty useless as a coach, so I quit derby completely. I didn't want to go out, not even to my beloved art studio.
As a social person, I was becoming miserable with the isolation. This wasn't me at all! I sat one day, staring at photographs of my friends, and suddenly a thought hit me: I have been approaching this all wrong. Sure, everyone is a stranger until we establish our relationship, but it goes the other way, too: what if I approach everyone as a friend? If they actually are a friend, we're already on good turf. If they are a stranger, well, now I have a new friend. This might be a good strategy.
I realized that just asking people how things are going gives me enough clues to figure out who they are. I learned I can recognize voices and physical tics and movements. I started working a little harder to note details of everyone I meet: do they have a favorite hat or coat? Do they have piercings, or moles? What is the shape of their brows? If something looks familiar to me, I start working through my database of details, hemming them together until I can "recognize" the person, all the while cheerfully asking them what they're up to or how are they doing. Most of the time this works and I can figure out who I'm talking to within a few seconds, but it did take practice. At first it would take a couple minutes and sometimes I'd finally have to ask who I was talking to, but that doesn't happen as much these days.
When I'm tired, its worse, and in situations with a lot of people I do get overwhelmed and easily confused, but now I just laugh it off. Oddly, the face blindness forced me to be even more social and friendly and the result is making a lot more acquaintances than I've ever had in my life. I smile more at people and say hi more. I have more interesting conversations with people. My friendliness often pays itself forward, and I have good daily interactions, sometimes with benefits (a free coffee here, a helping hand there). Sometimes I get a cold response from a stranger, but I shrug those off. Their loss.
A stranger is a stranger until they're a friend. Its funny how a little break in the brain actually adds value, rather than detracts. At first this was horrible, but it forced me to really look at how people interact with each other, it pulled the rug out from under me and I had to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty. What a gift!
The other night, I was watching VH1’s Best Of series, and they were reviewing the year of 1976. I was pretty young back then but we did have a TV and I was a voracious viewer at that age. So when they showcased the Captain and Tenille Variety Show, you can bet that I have a few episodes of that piece of Americana tucked back in the recesses of my cluttered mind. It also dislodged an old memory of mine.
I simply loved the Captain and Tenille show, but more so, I was mesmerized by how beautiful I thought Tenille was. She was everything a woman needed to be in a nice, neat, homogenized package. Blonde, big eyed, dazzling teeth, not-to-curvy body, complete with a microphone permanently welded to her right hand. And that voice! She clearly was a superstar in my tiny, impressionable eyes. By second grade, I am pretty sure I aspired to be just like her. I say “pretty sure” only because I aspired to be a lot of things during that year, like a flying monkey, Princess Leia, and a World Overlord, to name but a few. I was a very indecisive child when it came to what I wanted to be when I grew up.
When I was seven, my parents split up and my father was banished to live in my grandparent’s attic. We would see him on weekends over at my grandparents house, which we often enjoyed, for their house was a bit of a Funplex for us. There was a manmade creek behind their house, stocked (not purposely, I’m sure) full of tadpoles just begging to be caught in old jars, a breezeway on the second floor that we often tied sheets to the railing and swung off of, a la Tarzan, and my grandma’s lamp made of a gumball machine, with real gumballs inside it. My father’s attic room was a place of wonder, with its steeply angled, raw ceiling, bare lightbulb and dark wooden paneled walls, it screamed “secret hideout” to us kids, and was a favorite place of ours to cuddle up to read stories with him (we slept in the guest room downstairs). Despite my anxiety over my parents’ split, I really enjoyed visiting on the weekends.
One Sunday, before we were shuttled back home, my father was in the bathroom fiddling with his hair. He pulled out a pair of scissors and did a quick trim on himself. My father prided himself on the fact that he could cut and style his own hair, perfecting the “windblown feather” cut to a T. I watched him with great interest until he was satisfied with his trim. He looked over to me.
“What do you think?” he asked. Since his hair was only transformed by a mere centimeter, it looked almost the same as before, but I told him it looked good.
Then a thought occurred to me: if my daddy can cut hair, maybe he could cut my hair too. Maybe…just like… TENILLE.
“Daddy, can you cut my hair too?” I asked him. He thought a second and smiled.
“Of course I can! How would you like it?”
“Like Tenille,” I gushed. He furrowed his brow, no doubt reviewing the database of faces in his mind.
“How is her hair, Jules?” he asked me. I was incredulous. How could he not know? Everyone knows Tenille. My dad was a musician, a rock musician at that, didn’t he know her?
“Like this” I pantomimed around my head a rough estimate of a longish bowlcut with feathered bangs. His brows remained furrowed as he watched me. I suspect my voguing routine made no sense to him, and in hindsight, he should have chosen that moment to back out, but my dad was an adventurer, and more so, wanted to please his darling children in any way he could. He shook his head.
“Round in the back,” I said. He nodded. I happily went into the bathroom and sat on the toilet while my dad draped a towel around me. He carefully combed out my very long, straight, almond hued hair with his little black utilitarian comb, snipped a couple practice snips in the air, then began to work on my transformation from average second grader to Diva.
Although he was to my back, I could tell he was getting frustrated with his work. He’d snip a few times, pause then grunt in apparent disapproval before snipping again. I noticed my head was feeling lighter and lighter, and with a little trepidation I noticed the sound of the shears getting closer and closer to my ears.
“It’s just not even,” I heard my dad grumbling to himself.
“Is it looking good, Daddy?” I asked, hesitation hovering in my squeaky voice.
“It will, Jules. I just have to fix some things,” he replied. Snip snip.
“Okay,” he said, stepping back, “I think we’ve got it. Want to see your new ‘do, Miss Tenille?”
I clapped my hands together, excited. He dusted off my neck – hey, how come I feel air on my neck? – and helped me off the toilet. I looked down and froze.
There was a haphazard pile of hair on the floor, enough to make a wig. I was puzzled, and then put my hand to my head and noticed that I could barely grab a handful in my tiny fist. Panic gripped me before I even had a chance to look into the mirror. I had well-oiled waterworks and already my brain was calling in the troops to kick-start my tear ducts into full throttle. I finally made myself look at my reflection.
I could see my dad standing behind me, a weak, worried smile on his face, eyebrows lifted practically up to his hairline. Directly below him stood one of Fagin’s street urchins, a little boy in a yellow shirt, hair chopped in a variety of lengths, the longest of which was maybe two inches. It looked as if a lawnmower attacked my cranium. I took a big, deep breath and screeched.
“I DON’T LOOK LIKE TENILLE! I LOOK HORRIBLE! DADDY, WHAT DID YOU DO?” A deep, primal wail rolled up my windpipe and I began to weep. I couldn’t look in the mirror anymore, and even if I tried, my vision was obscured by large tears forming and splattering down my face.
“I did what you asked me to,” my dad said, “you don’t like it?”
“I – asked – you – to – round – the - baaaaackk,” I sobbed, “not – cut – it – all – offffff!”
“I’m sorry honey, I misunderstood,” my dad apologized. Even now I find his apology lame. How could he NOT realize he had royally screwed up? Why didn’t he put down those scissors when he first sensed this was way over his head? Was it pride? Or retardedness?
For the first time, I demanded I go home that very instant. My dad meekly complied and piled us kids into the car. I did not let up on my howling, so many tears escaped my eyes I’m sure I must have dehydrated myself in the process. I remember one point looking up, my eye peeking through my fingers, to see my little sister staring back at me, her mouth partly open, silent and looking thoroughly stunned. Her eyes said it all: Holy Crap, what happened to my big sister’s head?
I think the reality of the measure of his screw up came when my mother opened the door, heard my crying and looked down at me.
“Oh my God, David, what did you do to her?” my mom was incredulous.
“She asked me to cut her hair, so I did,” said my dad.
“Not like this! I wanted hair like Tenille,” I interjected.
“David, she’s seven years old and you’re the adult,” my mom snapped at him. “I don’t think anyone would want this kind of haircut, you butchered her hair! What were you thinking?”
My dad sheepishly responded, “I thought I could do it, I’m really good with hair.”
“David, just because you cut your hair in one kind of style doesn’t mean you’re a qualified hair dresser. It’s one thing to trim her bangs but Jesus, this is unreal. Just promise me you never ever touch a hair on her head, at least without talking to me!”
And with that, my mom ushered us in, grabbed our overnight bags, and slammed the door. My dad was in deep doodoo.
“You can’t go to school like this tomorrow, I gotta think,” my mom said more to herself than me. The thought of going to school like this, a school in which I already was on the brink of being a social pariah, set me into another wave of sobbing. My mom grabbed the phone and started making phone calls. She called her friend Penny, a hairdresser, and begged her to please see me after hours that evening, it was an emergency.
“David tried to cut her hair,” I heard my mom explain, ”and I think a blind man with epilepsy could have done a better job. You will not believe this.”
Penny agreed, and I was whisked off to her hair studio. Penny took one look and stifled a laugh, covered her mouth, inspected my head, shook her curly mane slowly back and forth.
“Wow,” was all she said.
“Can you fix it?” my mom asked. Penny thought for a minute.
“There are so many lengths on her head, it’s going to be a challenge. It almost would be easier to shave her down and start over, but we can’t do that, can we?” she kneeled down to me and smiled. “I’ll take care of you honey, don’t worry. We’ll fix this all up.”
Penny worked on me for over an hour. She managed to get my hair into a sort of feathered-boy-pixie-cut thing – way before Meg Ryan’s famous shag – and told my mom to both never let my dad cut his children’s hair, and for her to bring me back in each month so she could continue grooming my hair. It took over six months to work it into a short bob with bangs.
I only had one picture taken of me in second grade, and that was my class picture. I hate that picture, I had that terrible short haircut and coupled with my Goodwill welfare getup, I truly looked pathetic. Thankfully the kids never teased me about it – even they could tell that something tragic occurred to my once-beautiful long tresses, and there’s only so much bullying a child can take, the haircut was punishment enough. I never forgave my dad for that episode, and we chose never to discuss the matter ever again, although Penny took joy in ribbing my father over his hair cutting skills for many years afterwards. My dad got the hint and his scissors never snip snipped another head ever again.
Somehow my business partner and I were chatting about dating as teenagers, and he mentioned going to his Prom with his girlfriend as a "couple of losers". He asked me if I went to mine.
I took a deep breath, and he knew this wasn't going to be a "yes" or "no" answer, so he strapped in and ordered a proverbial drink for himself.
I had always wanted to go to Prom, "Pretty in Pink" style. I had gone to all the other dances, like Tolo and Homecoming, but senior prom night was the Mt Everest of dances, and I had already started work on my dress months before the event. There was this vintage shop on Roosevelt Ave near my high school, and they had stunning dresses from the early 20th Century. There was one there that was from 1919 in black silk, high waisted and tiered with jet beading. I saved my money for months for that thing, which was nothing to sniff at considering my addiction to records, vintage clothing, and speed (yes, yes, that's another story... Kyle ordered another drink for that one later). Once I had saved up the money and bought the dress, the girl who worked at the shop helped me redesign and sew the dress so it was a sleeveless and a little bit more form fitting, and she showed me how to stabilize the beading. It was a blessed project for the winter months, and I'd sit up at night maniacally sewing away, imagining how wonderful prom was going to be in this dress, how awesome it was going to photograph. The only thing I was missing was a date.
As spring approached, the date problem was starting to become a worry. While my best friend offered to take me, I was kinda holding out for a real date, not a mercy one, plus my best friend Keri was a vampire and she scared people (she didn't go to school, had her own apartment, slept during the day and was best known for floating down Broadway at wee hours of the night). My prospects were limited at my high school, although my English study partner sheepishly asked me to go with him. I respectfully turned him down: I actually was concerned he'd be made fun of for going with me, since he and I were polar opposites and his friends were pretty conservative, and I was a weirdo. Plus, truly, I had the dress to think of. My date had to match the dress.
Like magic, I was romantically stalked by a local musician-turned-drug-dealer and huzzah, I had the date thing nailed! He worked well with the dress, too, since he styled himself LA goth and wore more makeup than me and already owned a tux jacket with skeleton hand lapels, and wore a top hat. My only problem was, well, he was a lot older than me and unlike me, did not fantasize about the perfect Prom photo. I had my work cut out for me, and only a month to turn him.
While I was working on wearing him down by being the perfect girlfriend, I had acquired the perfect Fluevog shoes (pointy black leather ankle boots), got myself a black rose head piece and my father gifted me with the most beautiful black velvet capelet. I took to dressing up in my prom outfit on many speedy nights, working out photo poses and the perfect beehive (takes 1.5 cans of Aquanet, for the record). Once the date was announced, I got my tickets and called my boyfriend to work out the details.
"No fucking way," he said flatly. "That's retarded. Not going."
"We can just go in and get the picture done, we don't even need to dance or anything," my little heart was breaking!
"Date is no good," he was eating something so I heard a lot of mush noise between syllables, "Shelly's birthday is that night and she made me promise to go. Everyone wants MDA, so I gotta go. Get Keri to take you. Gotta go take a shit babe, see ya later." click, beeeeeeepppp. I just stared at my phone and one big fat tear rolled down my cheek. What was the point of this boyfriend thing? Don't guys understand why they were invented? What about my fucking dress???
I took the bus to Broadway and met Keri at Charlie's, our favorite restaurant to sit for hours. As we took turns dumping Charlie's Famous Colored Sugar Crystals into our bottomless coffee mugs, I relayed my dilemma. She looked concerned but nonplussed, then finally annoyed.
"Guys are dicks, you know that," she took a deep drag off her cigarette, cradled between her skeletal fingers. I just sighed. I wouldn't get very far complaining to Keri, seeing as she was a lesbian and she and I had been a couple for a long while, until my prom dream burned that avenue down like a bad fever. She only tolerated Sean (the boyfriend) because he ran the best designer drugs in Seattle at the time, and she got them through me. ("I'll have another drink," says Kyle)
At about this moment, an acquaintance of mine was cutting through the restaurant towards the back bar. In seeing me, he veered over to say hello. His name was David and he was a local weed dealer, a New Wave hippie guy, really goofy and friendly, like you'd imagine a weed dealer to be. He was probably in his early 20s and he was truly nice, and his big friendly smile dropped when he saw how crestfallen I was. He sat with us and listened to me whine about Sean refusing to take me to the dance, and gave me a big hug. "I'll take you, sweetie, and I'll even dance if you want. We'll have fun, fuck Sean, okay? C'mon, smile! Hey, I never went to my prom, this will be fun. I'll wear whatever you want," he gave me the chuck-on-the-chin and after writing his phone number on my hand, he gave me a big hug and trotted out to the bar. Keri rolled her eyes and lit another cigarette. I just stared at the digits on my hand, a slow smile creeping onto my face. My date with the dress was back on.
David and I chatted a few times on the phone over the next couple weeks, mostly working out the details of where to meet up and what he was going to wear. He seemed genuinely into it, and whether he had any other motive beyond just taking a goth chick to her prom, I wouldn't know. I nonchalantly mentioned to Sean that he needn't worry about taking me after all, and he just shrugged. "Dave's a nice guy," was all he said. Trust me, I Seinfelded the crap out of that comment for days, but finally figured it didn't matter, Senior Prom was only days away!
Friday before school, I laid out my dress near my bed and stared at it lovingly. You and me and Coconut trees and Cut-out stars, we'll make such a pretty picture. I happily trotted off to school, bumping into my English study partner in the hallway. He told me that another girl was going with him, and I was happy to hear it, and he said maybe we could get our pics taken, both couples, and I thought that was a grand idea. I passed by my friend Eowyn and asked her what her plans were that Saturday, as she was boycotting the dance. She wasn't sure, but since she also knew David, suggested maybe we all could meet later on? Again, I thought that was a grand idea, since she lived near Broadway and as her parents were often never home, her place was a great crash pad.
After school I raced home so I could admire at my dress again. While fixing myself a snack, the phone rang. It was David.
"Bad news, sweetie," his voice sounded weird, and wherever he was calling from, there was a lot of background noise. Uh oh.
"I'm in jail."
I asked him to repeat himself. He cleared his throat.
"I'm in jail, sweetie, I sold weed to a cop. This is my one phone call and I feel so terrible, I don't know when I will be released. I wanted you to know right away. I'm so sorry!! I had flowers for you, and--"
I hung up. I dropped my plate into the sink, walked passed my befuddled dad, wordlessly up the stairs, and slammed my door. My dress faced me like a scorned lover, and I snatched it up, tossed it into the closet, flopped onto my bed and sobbed, then fell asleep.
This could have been the end of my story, but no. I was plucky, and after a good long slumber I awoke with fresh determination. My dad had already left for a show -- my dad was a rock musician and played gigs on weekends -- so I helped myself to the dinner he left me and called Eowyn. "Plans changed," I said. "Meet me on Broadway tomorrow night. I'm going to make Sean take me, you'll have to help me."
I didn't tell my dad that my date was in jail; I didn't think that would go over real well. I did tell him that I was meeting my date for dinner on Capitol Hill before the dance, which made no sense since I lived in the University district and my high school was just up the street, but my dad learned early on it was pointless to question me on my idiosyncrasies, and just nodded. He had another gig that night so we agreed I could spend the night at Eowyn's and he gave me $20 for dinner, then gave me a big hug. "Just try to be ready before I leave, I want to see how you look," he said.
There's nothing quite like dressing up for an actual occasion. Its sort of ritualistic, from the laying out of the clothing, to the bathing, plucking, blow drying, powdering, lacing, teasing, combing, spraying. I took my time getting myself put together, dialing Sean's number every half hour. It would just ring and ring, and I figured he was either sleeping or doing whatever drug dealers do when their girlfriends aren't around. No matter, I knew that he would be up on Broadway later on, sitting on a staircase next to the 7-Eleven.
I did a final check in the mirror at the house and satisfied, I waltzed down the stairs so my dad could see me before leaving. He got all misty eyed and grabbed the camera, only to realize he forgot to put film in it. He cursed a couple times, then laughed. "They take pictures at these things, right?" he asked. Yeah, Dad, don't worry, I said. "This David better treat you well, okay? Don't drink anything weird, okay? Have fun, and oh, bring an umbrella, it might rain," my dad said before giving me a kiss and heading out the door.
I grabbed my capelet and looked out the window; the weather seemed clear, so I decided the umbrella was unnecessary. I walked up the street to the bus stops on 45th and 1st ("the Ave" to the locals) to catch a #7 bus to Broadway. I didn't anticipate that a fancy dressed goth teen with an impossibly huge black beehive 'do would get unwanted attention, but of course that's exactly what I was greeted with as soon as I reached the intersection. I knew most of the kids around there, the punk rock kids and metal heads that lolled about near the bus stops, record stores and the post office, and for the most part the ribbing was intended to relieve boredom on their part, and they all thought I was a snob (which is partly true; I was originally an "Ave Rat" but found Broadway to be more interesting to hang out at, Broadway had dancing and prettier boys and girls). I put on my headphones and sunglasses and patiently waited for the bus, wrapped in a protective scowl, Love and Rockets blasting in my ears.
I made it to Broadway by mid evening, hopping off on the north end near the Deluxe. Eowyn lived around the corner, and I met her at her house and did a quick primp before we both started off to the main drag. I explained to her that I knew Sean would be there, and maybe once he saw how fabulous the dress looked, he might be inclined to come back to the dance with me. If that didn't take, I had a $20. He could be bribed.
The usual suspects were standing around the corner of Broadway and East Harrison; it was a pit stop for drug dealing, and Sean was usually smack dab in the middle of it all. That evening it seemed particularly crowded and as we approached, I started to feel a little bit sick. I felt every muscle in my neck tense as I strolled up to Sean and tapped his arm, and he spun around and looked surprised, then irritated. "Why are you up here?" he asked. He didn't seem to take any notice of the dress.
I told him David was in jail and prom was in an hour. "Well, that really sucks," he said. "For you, I mean. I got Shelly's birthday party to go to, the cab is on its way."
I told him it would mean so much if he'd just consider going first, with me. "I worked so hard on this dress, you're my boyfriend, couldn't you just do this for me, just once?"
He started to laugh and shook his head. "I'm not changing my plans over a fucking dress, Julie."
I burst into tears. "What am I supposed to do, then?"
By this time, a little circle formed around us, and the cab pulled up, the back door opened and sitting inside was this Shelly and her friend. I heard Shelly's friend mumble "Oh my God, really?" as she beckoned my boyfriend inside with haste. He looked around at the amused, gathering crowd and me crying, and exploded.
"I told you no, and no and no, fuck, I said no, stop being such a bitch about it, I don't care, I'm going, get the fuck out of my way, go home, I don't care, Jesus!" And with that he stepped into the cab. Shelly and her friend were cackling at the scene before them. I followed Sean to the curb.
"Can I at least come with you?" I squeaked out.
"Not invited," he slammed the cab door in my face.
One would think this episode would incur empathy from witnesses, but alas, you do not understand the hearts and minds of intoxicated, bored teenagers. As Sean's cab sped off and I was left there in a puddle of mascara, I immediately heard a wave of "stop being a bitch" bounce around me like a bad street version of the movie Carrie. Eowyn gently grabbed my elbow to lead me off and away from the jackasses taunting me, assuring me things would be okay. As we started across the street, two local street kids pushed passed the others. One of them, this older punk guy named Derek, backhanded several of the taunters in my honor. Most of the younger kids were afraid of Derek, who was a well known neighborhood junkie and although skinny, was incredibly tall and impervious to pain, making him imposing. He was madly in love with Eowyn and did everything he could to impress her, including making the attempt to salvage my street integrity.
The other kid was a shorter skinny punk kid named Ben. Put that name on the back burner for a moment.
Derek rushed up to us and grabbed my other arm, which was a little bit startling and I jumped. He asked if I was okay, and before I could say anything, started laying in on what assholes those people were, glancing over to Eowyn from time to time to assess her response.
"Get lost, Derek," Eowyn said flatly. He was unflappable.
"I can buy you two booze," he said. He was 24.
Eowyn sighed. I sniffled.
"Okay," she stopped us and gestured for my little clutch I was carrying. I pulled out the $20 and she shoved it into Derek's hand. "If you get us something, that would be great. But you need to leave us alone, okay?" He practically jumped up and down, grabbed Ben's arm and ran back to the 7-Eleven. "You know he'll short change you," she said to me. I shrugged.
Derek came back a few minutes later with a bag containing two bottles of grape Mad Dog 20/20. I noticed Ben was holding another bag, and pretty much figured out I just bought them both their evening spirits. Derek handed me a wad of bills and told me I looked pretty. I feebly smiled back, and Eowyn snatched the bag and directed me onward like a rag doll.
We sat at Eowyn's for a while, guzzling the Mad Dog while I intermittently sobbed, gulped and hiccuped. She wasn't a big talker and I didn't really want to talk, so we listened to music for a little while. After about a half hour I started to get really tipsy and also really angry. I don't remember much after that except that I think I needed some fresh air, and stepped outside. I found myself wandering, Mad Dog in hand, down the street aimlessly. After a few minutes, it started to drizzle, not enough to be rain but just enough to cause my beehive to transform into a wasp nest. Fuck, great, I thought.
Then I tripped over the pointy tip of my Fluevogs. I didn't fall down, but it was just enough to scrape the topside of the leather and damage the tip. Fuck, great, I thought.
I continued my stumble, heading southwards. I passed the market, with its huge glass windows, and glanced over to see my reflection stare back, a girl with a lopsided, melted updo, black lines of mascara streaked down her cheeks, smeared red lipstick, capelet askew off one shoulder, bottle of shitty booze in one hand and a broken shoe on her foot. I wiped my nose with the back of my hand, smearing my lipstick worse. Fuck, great, I thought. Well, the dress still looked okay. I looked away and kept walking.
I wandered down Harvard Ave for a few blocks, and as I passed by Harrison, I heard someone call out something, and I looked up. Down the block, on the north side of the 7-Eleven there was a concrete slab that served as a bench. Sitting on it was that punk kid Ben, and he was apparently yelling something at me. I couldn't understand him, so I slowly turned east and walked up to him. He patiently waited.
"I was saying, you look sad," he repeated himself. "And also, can you share? I'm all out." I looked at the Mad Dog in my hand, shrugged and gave it to him. He snatched it up, mumbled a thanks and quickly looked around before swigging. I noticed he had a cane in his other hand and I pointed to it, I think I drunkenly inquired about it.
"Oh yeah, this is Big Ben's," he was referring to another local punk who resembled Lou Ferrigno. "I'm holding it for him." He tapped the ground with it, then pointed at me with it. "You," he said, "are unhappy. You need to tell me all about what's wrong. Come sit over here and tell me your troubles."
I sat on the bench next to him and immediately started some kind of girlish babble. He signaled for me to shut up, looked around again, smiled then patted his knee. "I'll hear you better," he said. He was clearly flirting but I took it with a grain of salt; Ben was known to be a flirt and had pretty much dated or hooked up with every high school girl I knew, except me. He was very charming though, and even surly Keri had a soft spot for him. He didn't think much of Sean and had made that clear to me on multiple occasions in the past. And at that point, on that evening, I wasn't thinking much of Sean either. I promptly sat on Ben's knee.
"Guys are dicks," I said. "They sure are," he agreed. "I hate guys," I said. "As you should," said Ben. I laughed. "I have always hated you," I booped his nose. He grabbed my booping hand and said, "Well, okay, that can change, right? Its loud out here, let's go to my house and you can tell me all about that."
Ben picked me up and I wrapped my arm around him so I wouldn't fall down and we started down the street, when suddenly I heard "YOU GET OFF HER RIGHT NOW!". I turn my head to see my friend Eowyn marching down the street toward us. She grabbed my arm and started yelling at Ben, something about being a dirty dog. "Julie wants to come with me, right?" he asked me, a big grin on his face. "Yep," I said, then hiccuped.
"She's drunk, she doesn't know what she's doing, you damn asshole," Eowyn hissed at Ben and yanked at my arm. Ben yanked back on my other arm and I was now a pinata. Back and forth they argued, and back and forth I went, both of them pulling with greater and greater force until I think I said "I'm going to throw up", and Ben let go. He put his hands up in mock defeat and backed away, still grinning, cane still in hand. "You win," he said to Eowyn. "You know where to find me," he said to me and winked, then turned to join a small group of his friends that had gathered to watch this spectacle. Eowyn grabbed me around the waist and steered me down the street, grumbling. I was pretty much out of steam and let her lead me home.
I don't remember anything else except Eowyn had carefully removed and hung up my dress before putting me to bed. When I woke up it was miraculously unscathed. In borrowed clothes I went home, carrying my dress carefully with me. Once home, I hung it at the back of my closet, blew it a kiss, then gobbled up a handful of aspirin.
The following Monday, I bumped into my English study partner at school.
"Where were you?" he asked me. "I had hoped we'd get a picture or something, or maybe dance? What happened?"
I gave him a long, quiet look, then shook my head.
"I should have said yes," I said to him. "I'm sorry I didn't. I hope you had fun."
A few weeks later, I sat down next to my study partner in class, and he tapped my arm. He handed me a picture of him and his date at the prom.
"I thought you might want this," he said. I looked at it for a long time, at the vase of roses on a pedestal next to him and his date, the black and white checkerboard floor. He sported a sharp looking tux and red tie and his date wore a crepe pink dress. "Thanks, Jovy," I said.
"It would have been fun with you, you know," he gave my arm a quick squeeze. He knew how much work I put into my dress, I had been talking about it to him all year and he had patiently listened to me describe the beading process and how to make bodice alterations, and I realized right then and there that it wasn't that guys are dicks. I was the dick.
Hey, Kyle, hey, wake up!
I need to add here, I thanked my friend Eowyn a few years later for tearing me off of Ben that night. I was drunk and stupid, and I would have regretted going home with him, not because I had a boyfriend I was mad at, but because a year later I bumped into Ben at The Underground, a dance club in Seattle. Had I gone home with Ben on Prom Night, I would have been too embarrassed to say hello that evening, and we would not have repeated that entire scenario a second time around, and this time there was no Eowyn to save me from my foolish decisions. However, this time around, I took him home with me and 30 years later, he's still here.
The other night I had a strange dream, which I summarized and sent off to my friend, a Lakota Indian who happens to be rather good at analyzing dreams. He didn't interpret it, but asked me a series of questions that allowed me to unmask the dream's lesson, which was a pretty good one.
In the dream, there is a crow. This crow (whom I'll just refer to as Crow) starts a game of pulling young chicks out of nests, dropping them down to earth, then mauling them before biting their head's off. Crow seems to enjoy this gruesome bloodsport, and after a while the local bird community suffers a great loss in its next generation.
I see Crow's game and am upset by it. He pulls down a young Robin chick, who is crying. He hasn't completely finished with a little finch chick, who is pretty much dead, so the Robin is hopping about in distress while Crow works on biting the finch's head off. I crouch down and pick up the Robin and carry it back to its tree and worried parents.
I walk back to Crow and I scold him. I tell him that this game is terrible and destructive. Crow cocks his head and looks at me and I can tell he doesn't agree with me. Finished with the finch, he flies back to the Robin's nest to retrieve the little chick.
I then wind up spending my time in wait, trying to catch him in the act and rescue the little chicks he steals. This is time consuming, and since Crow is wise on me, he devises little counter actions of his own. It becomes exhaustive on my part, and I realize I can't spend all my days spying on Crow.
Since Crow is clearly unphased by his actions and consequences, and my counter to save the chicks isn't always successful, the only other option to end the game is to convince Crow to play another one. While the dream ended here, it made me realize that in life, you're going to come across situations that you find unjust, broken, dysfunctional, destructive. Your kneejerk response is to point out how wrong this is, or how wrong these people are. Often, you are met with opposition, anger, or simply nothing at all. Now you are at war. You fight the injustice, and sometimes you're successful, sometimes you're not, but it becomes a consuming battle.
Crow is traditionally a very wise trickster. Trying to outwit Crow is a fruitless challenge. Going to war with Crow can also warrant results that are not in your favor. And really, locked in this situation, no one is happy.
Taking the time to understand that the game he is playing, then devising a new game that satisfies those motives, will ultimately end the game. If Crow is convinced that there is something better to do with his time than steal chicks, he'll move on. He may never understand the vulgarity of his actions, he may never pay the price of killing little chicks for sport, but if the results stop the terrible injustice and bring about peace, its worth the effort.
In this current day, the dream of Crow is a potent one, its strong medicine. It tells me that I need to explore other options in solving problems, and to do so, I need to better understand the motivations of those around me. If I want the world to be a healthier place, I have to work to find solutions that entice others enough to end their current dysfunctional ways. This is the hardest path to walk, but the most rewarding.
My dad took me to one of those gourmet cheese stores when I was four. I think he was looking for a cheese platter gift for his parents; I'm not really sure why we were there, actually. I loved places like that; they always smelled good, but most importantly, they often had racks and cases full of chocolate and candy.
While he was being assisted by the shopkeep, I ran free about the store. I had a bloodhound nose for the candy section and in less than three blinks I was standing in front of a large, long rustic shelf with bins full of all kinds of candy and chocolate things: malt balls, caramels, peppermints, toffy, chocolate wrapped in amusing animal shapes. Just the smell of it sent me into a sort of sugar high. I'm sure a dribble of spit probably dripped down my chin, eyes dilated, face flushed, the whole nine yards. I was probably temporarily insane.
I was like a crack whore - I had to have a hit, right there, right now. I shoved my little hand into the malt ball bin, which actually had a little scoop attached by a piece of twine, but fuck that. My hands were tiny and I was only able to fish out about three of them, and right before I shoved them into my maw, I could hear my dad from the other side of the store yell out, as if psychically tethered to my dopamine riddled mind, "Kid, behave yourself. I'm almost done, don't touch anything!" I froze. Shit. He knows.
I slowly, painfully put the malt balls back into the bin. Dammit, I thought (well, I probably thought something more like "gosh", but it felt like a dammit). I knew he wasn't going to let me get anything, and I can't leave this place without a heavenly taste of ambrosia that sat in front of me, taunting me. I scanned the shelves. To the right of me, parked conveniently waist-high, was a bin full of chocolate coins in gold mesh bags, the kind Jewish families dole out on Hanukkah. I side stepped myself on over, and stared at this golden heap of Yum for a moment.
I noticed that there were coins that had escaped their mesh bags and loosely settled about the bin. I grabbed one and examined it, flipped it over in my hand, inhaled its milk chocolate fragrance. I looked left, then right. The coast was clear. With little claw nails I tore into the foil and shoved that thing in my mouth, and oh my god, it was delicious. The foil hadn't even hit the floor by the time I grabbed another orphaned coin, and another, and another. The bromine sent me on a trip and for a moment I was gone, transported into another universe, Stanely Kubrick styled.
I felt a firm hand on my shoulder, then another hand grab my sticky little fist. I hadn't noticed my dad and the shopkeep coming down the aisle, didn't even hear him say, "Jules, what the hell are you doing?" I think he said it twice, I'm not sure, but suddenly I had two adults leaning into me, grabbing my little arms, peeling the remaining coins from my hand. Caught with the proverbial pants down, I knew I needed to think fast to get out of this jam.
"Jules, you're stealing, you can't eat chocolate unless you pay for it," my dad said. He turned to the woman who worked at the store, a pleasant enough looking girl with long blond hair. "I'm really sorry, she normally doesn't do this kind of thing."
The girl nodded sympathetically and looked at me and sweetly said, "Do you know what stealing is?"
Look, I'm four, but I'm not stupid. Of course I know you gotta pay for it. But I'm was four, I had no job, no money, and no self control. I also had a big imagination, and was fully aware that if I didn't pull myself out of this, I could go to jail. Or worse, they'd put my dad in jail, which would get me off the hook but I'm half Jewish and half Irish Catholic, and the genetic guilt alone would crush me, let alone being the family pariah, forced to sit at family dinners with my crazy cousin Gary, the other family pariah, at a little card table in the corner of the room, trapped within the billowing haze of his booze vapors and conspiracy theories forever more.
Four year olds under pressure can be unbelievably brilliant. They are fully aware that most adults think they're idiotic, even innocent. I was no exception; I had a shot at playing the innocent card, albeit once, so I had to make it good, I had to make it stick. So I batted my big dark eyes at the shopkeep, pouted my chocolate stained lips, and said, in my tiny squeaky voice: "I thought that they were free because they weren't in the bags, and no one is going to buy coins not in the bags, so it was okay, right?"
Cue the "aaaawwwww" from the studio audience, folks.
"No honey, they're not free, but you didn't know. Now you know," she laughed and patted my head. My dad laughed too and his vice grip softened.
She turned to my dad. "It's okay, sir, don't worry about it, no harm done. I'll get a napkin to wipe her face."
My dad thanked her, then leaned into me. "Do you understand now, that was stealing? You can't take what's not yours, even if it looks free. Did you learn something here today?"
I nodded. Oh yes, yes I did.
Thus began my childhood life of crime.
I swear to God this is a true story.
So in the 80s it was rather commonplace to send teenagers to psychiatric wards. Depressed, anxious kids were skirted off to places with inconsequential names like Willow Lodge or Fairfax, where they were dosed up with cocktails of antidepressants and valium and an abundance of talk therapy before being released to their nervous parents living on the dream that somehow their kid would be, you know, normal again. Or at least a little bit quieter.
I'll cut to the chase: I lost my virginity to a teenage ninja I met at a nuthouse.
At sixteen I was sent to Fairfax in Seattle. I was a depressed New Wave girl with swastikas cut into her arms, and that was a sure ticket to the psych ward in those days. Unfortunately Fairfax was the hottest place in town for wayward teens, and they did not have a bed available for me. The next best thing was the University of Washington's psychiatric wards. These were actually meant for adults but they would occasionally take the overflow of teens, so I wound up on their first floor, which was the least violent of the two wards. Less stabbings and random choke outs, so it was kid friendly.
I could write a whole novel about my stay at the UW, which was for three weeks, but I'll focus instead on how I hooked up, literally, with the other teen staying a few rooms down from me. Sean was 15 and got hit in the head, I can't remember how, and I guess his personality changed. He was fighting in school and having blackouts, but mostly, he truly believed he was a ninja. Other than that, he was a typical blond American teenage boy. Which means, of course, he was pumped full of hormones, and being cooped up in a psych ward with another teenage girl, well, heck, why not steal off for a makeout session between group therapies?
The orderlies kept an eagle eye on patients, so it was really hard for Sean and I to get any further than a 30 second feel up or a kiss or two. He wasn't really my type - beyond, you know, being a ninja - but he seemed like a nice kid and he was cute. I wasn't his type either, but he liked New Wave music and I seemed kind of like an exotic bird to him, complete with floppy bangs over the eye and side of my head shaved. But mostly I was female and not as crazy as the other females in the psych ward. So there you go.
He got out before I did, but we decided to keep in touch, which translated to us carving out actual private time together to get rid of that annoying pesky thing called virginity. I was going to be released to my aunt and uncle, who were acting as my foster kinship family. He lived out in Des Moines, somewhere "out there" south of Seattle, so organizing dates together was a little tricky. After I first got out, he bussed up into Seattle to meet me in the University District and we strolled around and not much action occurred. We decided it would be more advantageous that I come down to Des Moines, to his house. His parents generally did not know how to deal with a ninja son, so they left him to his own devices in his room, which translated to blissful privacy.
This is where things get weird.
We agree I come down on his birthday - he was turning 16. I get to his house, which is banal and suburban. I meet his family: Mom is nervous and overly helpful, Dad is older and quiet, his brother has an Asian wife that speaks no English, and his brother is a discharged Marine. His mom made dinner for Sean's birthday, so his whole family is there, and me. We all eat, I'm asked the normal polite questions people ask of new girlfriends, with the exception that no one talk about the psych ward.
Then Sean announces he and I are going up to his room, please don't come up anyone. We are going to lose "it" now. My jaw dropped, and I turned beet red, but no one says a word, they keep at the eating motions, never missing a beat. His mom leans over, picks up his plate and just calmly says, "okay dear, we're going to be in the living room watching TV. You two can join us later if you want."
Sean grabs my arm (I'm still holding a fork) and leads me away from the table. The family is still eating, like nothing is happening. He leads me up to his room and closes the door. The room has posters of ninjas literally wallpapering every inch of wall space. The ceiling is painted black. He has several numchucks hanging off one of the walls, and he excitedly takes one of them down and shows it to me. Then he starts doing some kind of numchuck routine, whipping it around, behind his back, over the shoulder, etc. He got over excited and tried some kind of new move, some kind of flip around the elbow. The edge of one of the chucks clocks me right over the eye and I fell over backwards on his bed. "Shit, you okay?" he asked. Then "Please don't tell my mom."
He puts the numchucks away and pulls out his throwing star collection, and explains the lethality of each one. Then he starts tossing them all over the room. Yeah, safer than the chucks, just fling those suckers everywhere. I instinctively cover my head and duck, wincing with every thwop of a star embedding into something.
He ran out of stars to throw, and plopped down beside me on his bed, thinks for a second, then ran over to his record player. "You'll love this," he said. He puts on Dead or Alive's "Youthquake", drops the needle on "You Spin Me Round", then flings himself on the bed. He then proceeds to strip all of his clothes off. Mind you, I'm still fully dressed and nursing my forehead. I'm also having second thoughts about this whole transaction.
Sixteen year old girls do not like being virgins. I hated the term and all the connotations that went with it. It was something to be shed, like a snakeskin. And in my head, I wasn't really looking for perfection on the scenario, I just didn't want to answer that constant, stupid question boys asked all the time. So sure, being in this room with this ninja boy, a headache, and Dead or Alive -- I HATED Dead or Alive -- on the turntable was not particularly ideal. I looked over at this naked, grinning idiot through the curtain of bangs, and I think I sighed heavily. Sean grabbed at the collar of my vintage dress, and the button popped off and rolled under the bed. Great, now my awesome new dress is fucked up too, I thought. He didn't seem to notice my irritation, he probably didn't care much. He gave me a kiss, that softened me a little bit, but I was really weighing out my options at that point. Things were not going well. "This is the best birthday," he whispered. Um...really?
Yeah, I caved.
It was terrible teenage sex. It probably lasted about 10 minutes but felt like an eternity in Dante's Hell. Fumbly, really poor timing of movement, plus there was that hymen breakage that I'm telling you was like twenty hangnails tearing off all at once. Riffing off the squeaks of muffled agony, Sean finally wrapped it up in what was probably his own little boy-to-man opus, dug around his junk for a moment to procure his little deflated condom, and presented it to me. Good God, yuck, I said. He studied it for a second, like a scientist peers at a beaker he's holding up to his nose with pinky finger out, and he smiles at the latex sack of swimmers like one watches an aquarium of guppies. Grabbing his pants off the floor, he motioned for me to sit still. Before I could say anything, he opened his bedroom door, condom still in hand, and at the top of the stairs that faced the living room, announced loudly "I just had sex, Mom and Dad! Look!".
"Good for you, son," I heard his dad yell back.
"Do you two want any cake?" I heard his mom say.
"No," answered Sean, "Because now its Ninja Time"
He came back into the bedroom, shut the door and went to his closet and closed himself in. After a moment, he emerged all in black, in an impressively detailed ninja costume, including the black socks and sandals, head covering and bandana over his mouth. In his right hand, he held a very sharp and real looking katana. In his left hand, the floppy condom.
The record player restarted itself, and as "Spin Me Round" flayed the air around me, Sean leaped onto his dresser and began stabbing the air in earnest. From there, he dropped down to the ground, rolled, and hopped back up in front of me, whoosh whoosh went the katana blade, narrowly missing my nose. He leaped onto the bed, whoosh whoosh. I wondered how many imaginary adversaries were dying in that room, but more importantly, when was he going to disposed of that disgusting goddamn condom.
At that moment, I heard a distinct rapping coming from his bedroom window. I looked over, and in my horror, I saw three teenage boys, tapping at the glass, apparently hanging off a branch of the large tree growing beside the house. All three are dressed exactly like Sean.
"Sweet, its my crew!" says Sean, and pulls the window open and the three boys crawl in. Now I have four pimply, teenage fucking ninjas standing in front of me.
"She's pretty," says one.
"She's not naked," says another.
"Did you guys do it yet?" says the third.
"You guys are late, dudes," says Sean, giving them all hi-fives (he finally set the condom down).
"Are you fucking kidding me?" I yelled. And yes, I was fully clothed, minus one missing button. By this point I was off the bed, and I'm sure my face was a nice shiny shade of fury. All four of them were giggling like morons. In the background, Pete Burns is belting out "I need your loooooovvvvve". ...
Then suddenly, like four startled cats, they all start to ninja in some kind of weird ballet of whooshes and hops. It was like I wasn't even there anymore. I looked about the room in disbelief, not so much horrified as I was mystified, like I had visited some lost tribe on the Amazon and a strange never-seen-by-white-man ritual struck up on a foreign timeline.
Without a word, I turned and walked out of the room, down the stairs and into the living room, where Sean's parents sat watching TV, laugh track booming. His mom looked up at me and smiled.
"Are you having a good time?" she asked me.
"I want to call my aunt. I want to go home." I think that was the last thing I said that evening. I sat in the kitchen, silently, alone, until my aunt arrived to pick me up. Not a word did I say when my aunt rang the doorbell, just a silent, swift exit. I could hear through the ceiling the continued thumps and bumps of four teenage ninjas triumphantly executing their dance of fecundity, no doubt with a dirty old dick balloon in the left hand. I never saw Sean again.
For years, I told no one this story. I finally relayed it during an interview for a documentary film called Lost. The filmmaker laughed so hard during filming, she had an asthma attack and accidentally knocked over the camera. That's gold, she said. Pure gold.
No, as a whole, has a bad rap. We learned of its mighty power at age two, and ever since then we as a society have been taught that No is naughty, arrogant, self-serving, oppositional, wrong. Only People with Power Over Us are allowed to use the word No (like, for example, Mom and Dad).
I think growing up with this viewpoint has screwed up what Yes is all about. Yes is likeable, friendly, pleasing. Yes means More, right? So we are inclined to say Yes to as many things as possible, because it makes us more Loved, Valued, Honored by friends, family, peers, and of course, People with Power Over Us. Somehow, saying Yes will give us many rewards, open doors, make us happy.
I say Yes a lot. A LOT. You need a favor? Sure! Wanna borrow something? Of course! Need some help? You bet! Its true, for a hot second you are saving someones bacon, and that feels really nice... until you realize, oh crap, there's a payment for every Yes: Time. Energy. Commitment. Work. Attention. That adds up substantially over time, and then suddenly you have no time, no energy, poor commitment, you're spread thin, you're distracted. You burn out. And often, the kneejerk Yes you spat out, when really reviewed in hindsight, well, its more of a Maybe. We say Yes to a lot of Maybe situations, or rather, situations we haven't really had a moment to run through thoughtful consideration, or truly in our heart of hearts we just don't wanna do but feel obligated for some reason.
I've been reading Greg McKeown's "Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less" and he has a whole chapter devoted to the art of saying No, and what No really means. Contrary to our personal belief (which, remember, was established back in our second year of life), No is really about the true value of Yes. No is about determining what is of value to you, your time, your energy, your commitment. No is about creating space in your world to develop who you really are and what you need to do to get where you want to go in life. No is about doing your best work, living your best life. People who say No regularly are not, on the whole, oppositional, but rather they actually value Yes. They use it when they actually mean it, when things are lining up, the time is right, the energy is there, the passion and commitment are at ready. People who understand the real power of No don't hit others with it like a two year old, but are very good at setting true expectations, are often honest, and in return, they may momentarily disappoint others, but often they garner respect in a way that us Yes People do not. Additionally, for most of these people, Maybe is just a very shy No; if something is a maybe, its really a "meh"-be, and therefore is lumped into the No category as well.
People who understand the Art of No are actually incredibly passionate, checked-in, driven, and fulfilled. Nay, successful! They are focused on what really works for them, how they can be of best service to mankind. As someone who says Yes to everything, I'm so intrigued by this, this secret other world. I actually hate, hate being agreeable all the time - its people pleasing that leaves me drained, and more and more off my own course, which half the time I don't even know what that is anymore. No one really respects my Yes, anyway. They expect it, but not respect it. And because I say Yes to everything, obviously some of the Yes's fall by the wayside, which in turn makes me a flake. So yay, now I'm unreliable to boot. No one cares if you're spread thin, said Yes to too many people or projects, or are tired -- if you flake on their Yes, by God, you have some serious explaining to do. Of all the Yes's, why their Yes?
You avoid all of this with No.
I said No the other day to a "favor" casually tossed at me. It felt weird to say No, but it was a time and energy commitment request on the same day I had another commitment that meant far more to me, and had more riding on it. Often I'll try to accommodate, but this time I actually politely said no, it wasn't possible. I could hear the disappointment in the other person's voice, but truly, it lasted all of 5 seconds -- 5 seconds -- before they said "I hear ya, darn, okay, too bad" then the subject changed to something else. And suddenly, I was free of guilt, over commitment, frustration, and anxiety, all because of that little No. I walked away from the conversation in a far better place than had I said Yes.
I'm still by far a No newbie. I still have to actively stop myself from responding immediately to requests, and give pause as I review what the request really entails with commitment. I am still not used to untangling myself from an identity of "helpful" as "valuable", and redefining what is actually valuable to myself. My poor health has really forced my hand with this lifestyle change, but in the bigger picture, its a far healthier, more honest way of living and I wish I had considered learning the Art of No years ago. But now is as good a time as any, right?