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?