Thursday, August 24, 2006

Seeds of Doubt

“What’s wrong with you” he bellowed. “I’ve been calling your name for 10 minutes, and you just sit there.” I immediately assumed my dad was exaggerating due to frustration, not that my assumption was a conscious process, it was just what he did and I was used to it. However, I could see from the look on my mother’s face that she was under the same impression that he had been addressing me and I had been ignoring him.

Truth be told, I had never heard him and I could offer no explanation for my behavior. Secretly I supposed they’d have to chalk it up to another child’s grey matter being turned to mush by the boob tube. After all, it was a very common thing that happens and dad had reminded us on an almost daily basis that it would eventually happen to us too. This was just proof in the pudding.

My brain damage wasn’t limited to home either. School was becoming more and more of a nightmare, with sliding grades and my increasing inability to pay attention. It was during this time that my mother and my teachers agreed that something needed to be done. Fortunately, they did not see eye to eye on what that something was.

The school administration was convinced that I needed to be in remedial classes, and they consequently enrolled me in such. I wasn’t there to see it, but I would later learn that my mother went ballistic. She knew that her son was a bright boy and she wasn’t about to let them write me off. Most likely a way to help the faculty make their case, it was decided that I would be tested in a number of ways and the appropriate arrangements were made.

It was one of those corner stone moments in my life.

The first test done was a routine hearing test, but the results were far from routine.

Sitting in a dark, soundproof booth not much bigger than a linen closet, I began wondering what the delay was as I waited for the test to start. There seemed to be rather lengthy and unnecessary pauses between the tones I was hearing, and I was starting to get fidgety. At the same time, I couldn’t understand why the technician kept interrupting the test to re-explain the testing process and remind me to push the button on the device when I heard the tones. Young or not, it didn’t appear to be too complicated to me, but they seemed to think I didn’t get it. I began to suspect their equipment might be broken.

We were on our third go around before they realized that it wasn’t that I didn’t get how the process worked, it was that I wasn’t hearing the tones. Apparently the hearing test was so routine they weren’t accustomed to people failing it.

From there it was quickly learned that I was deaf in one ear and nearly deaf in the other. Upon further investigation it was discovered that the cause of my loss of hearing was plugged ear canals. The prognosis was good as my hearing was easily remedied by the insertion of tubes. The details of the resulting surgeries are lost in a vague fog of anesthesia and dreamlike memories.

Evidently, as I grew up I had simply learned how to read lips. No one had caught on to the fact that I wasn’t hearing them, and being so young it never occurred to me that I had a problem. This was the only way I had ever taken in the world. And it had worked fine for me when I was watching and paying attention. On the other hand, if I was looking elsewhere, (such as reading a book or watching T.V.); it didn’t work out so well.

With my hearing problem discovered and addressed, it was still clear that I was not doing well in school. I wasn’t keeping up, and they were all at a loss. While the school administration was sympathetic to my hearing set back, it was still their opinion I needed to be moved to remedial classes and schoolwork.

In an effort to determine where my learning capabilities were at it was decided that I would be administered an IQ test.

Again, the results were unexpected.

I tested extremely high. Near as they can figure, I was simply bored out of my mind in class, and therefore was unable to focus on what was being taught because I was not being challenged enough in class. I needed to be put at a higher learning level, not a lower one.

More importantly, I had learned something. I wasn’t stupid… I was smart.

I was smart. I WAS SMART!!! How wonderful it is to find out that you are better than you thought you were. Oh, they wouldn’t tell me until years and years later what my true IQ was. They said it wasn’t important, and that I didn’t need to make anybody else feel less smart because of how I tested. Yet I was able to figure out I must be pretty smart if they didn’t want to tell me for fear of it going to my head. And how did I figure that out? Because I was smart!

There was a flip side to this information. It was in direct contradiction to what my dad had been inferring for as long as I can remember.

That could only mean one thing… he was wrong. For the first time in my life I knew him to be wrong about me, and for the first time I doubted his omnipotence. More significantly, I recognized that the person really looking out for me was my mother.

I loved my Mother. I guess every little boy does, but it seemed different for me. I knew my father hated how clingy I was with her, but I didn’t care. As long as she was around I always felt a little safer, like there was a line he wouldn’t cross with her around. I didn’t understand it, but I sure did pick up on it, and I used it to my advantage. As I look back now, I believe these were the first conscious acts of defiance leveled by me toward my dad.

My mother spent a good deal of time with me taking me back and forth to the doctor’s office, and being there when I came out of surgery. It was the first time I remember being different in a good way, and it made me feel special. Anything that caused me to miss school and spend more time with my mom was all right with me.

I ran to her for everything. If I had a question I would ask her. If I had a secret I would share it with her. If I had a hurt I would turn to her. If I felt threatened I hid within her for safety and if I needed love I looked for that love in her.

Why did I not have this kind of relationship with my dad? Why did he seem to be so displeased with me all of the time, when my mother seemed to be fine with me? When I thought I was dumb it was easy to rationalize his disdain for me, but now that I knew I wasn’t I couldn’t seem to figure it out. If anything, things had gotten worse between us since it was determined that I was exceptional instead of challenged.

Something was not right, and neither was he… or was he? The seeds of doubt were planted, and the strife began to grow.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Ichabod Crane

“Where’s the flood, Jones?” Somebody called out from across the hall. I pretended not to notice as I fumbled with the combination on my locker. I felt my ears begin to burn, turning a deep shade of burgandy while I hastily traded in one set of books for another, and slunk down the hall to my next class. It was important that I didn’t let on how much it embarrassed me to be singled out that way, otherwise my humiliation would just fuel the fire.

A gangly kid growing up, my arms and legs seemed to develop two years ahead of my torso, and the resulting look was not at all flattering. It was sort of the Gumby look gone awry. As I rapidly grew out of my clothes there were rare moments when I wore pants that weren't just a little bit too short. This would be at the root of the “flood” comments.

On one particular occasion I came home from school near tears when some kids at school had noticed something different about me. I hadn’t done anything on purpose to garner their attention, perish the thought; all I had done was stop in the hallway at school and scratch my kneecap… without bending over. It never dawned on me that this was an unusual event until it was pointed out to me that nobody else had arms long enough to scratch their knee caps without bending over. It was a distinction that only I held. When I demonstrated my abilities to my mother in an attempt to emphasize my point, she couldn’t help but stifle her own giggle over my dubious talent.

I knew from an early age that something was wrong with me. I was forever doing things the wrong way or incorrectly. Not big things, just little things that would drive my father, and other adults, crazy. I had an inherit ability to crawl underneath the skin of many an adult and irritate them like some sort of ringworm. It was not uncommon for them to want to rid themselves of me as quickly as possible, as one might rid themselves of a parasite.

A jumpy kid, I had a tendency to be “twitchy”. I was constantly fidgeting, moving, scratching or shaking in some sort of nervous fashion. This caused me all manners of grief both at school and at home. It was a subconscious habit that I would have stopped if I could have, but I never seemed to be able to get a handle on it.

Kids thought I was weird and teachers found me annoying. Worse yet, at home my dad loathed what he perceived as an undisciplined activity of a willful individual. My jittery presence would prompt him to stop whatever he was doing and begin mimicking my nervous actions in the most disturbing manner possible. His sneering face and mocking tone were always accompanied by grotesque gyrations that seemed bent on humiliating me. It worked.

I’m not sure when it started, but sometime around this time he took to calling me Ichabod Crane. He made no bones about explaining to me that I was a geek patterned after this iconic character from Sleepy Hollow, and it became routine for him do one of his “twitch” dances shortly after calling me “Ichabod”.

One day I made the mistake of asking him what a geek was. I was young and nobody had ever told me what a geek was, but I sure heard the term frequently enough. He began to elucidate that it was a large bird with long wings that flew down the middle of the river screeching, “Geek, Geek!” I took him at his word.

Later that same week a fellow student called me a geek and then stared at me in stunned disbelief as I proceeded to fill him in on the true definition of what a geek was.

This did not contribute positively to my image.

It didn’t take a whiz kid to realize that there must be something off beam about me; subsequently I began to accept my place in the social order of school and our family. On top of that, I never saw dad go after my brothers the way he did me, so facts are facts.

It certainly didn’t help that I was a daydreamer. I loved books, and I could get caught up in a book for hours, sometimes days. Every book represented a strange new world where dreams came true and there was almost always a happy ending. The escape was intoxicating, and while caught up in the headiness of my next exploit I was given a reprieve from my own woeful inadequacies. For a very small period of time I was no longer the screw up, I was the hero of the story, riding to save the princess, or better yet, the world.

My teachers were really to blame for my interest in literature. I can still remember 2nd grade story time when my teacher would read from the novel, “James and the Giant Peach”. The boy who had such adventures, such freedom, fascinated me. I would imagine myself living and traveling in the giant peach, totally disregarding the stickiness of the situation, and I’d drift away from whatever stark reality would be waiting for me in class or when I got home.

Add to that, the school library having every book, and every adventure that I could ever dream of being a part of and you had a recipe for trouble. This was one of the original problems for me at school. Frequently the teacher would catch me stealing moments of surreptitious reading with a book opened in my lap, protruding half in and out of my desk. I’d be devouring the latest adventures of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn when I should have been paying attention in class.

Television was even worse. I would get so sucked into the television that everything around me would cease to exist. More than once I was made privy to a conversation my dad had been having with me while picking myself up off of the floor.

I had other irritating tendencies too. At the dinner table, we were required to “keep our faces” in our plate, as dad put it. A military man, he believed in quiet children at the dinner table, and his idea of respect was not in question. We were not allowed to look up from our plate or speak without permission, but I could never seem to master this. I would often get caught “eyeballing” him out of the corner of my eye. I couldn’t help but always be watching out for his next move. At any moment his hand could strike out and catch me in the mouth, leaving the taste of blood mingling with my meal. He was lighting fast, and it almost always caught me by surprise.

This would cause another one of my more grating tendencies to crop up.

Until the day I turned 13, I was a crybaby. A smack in the mouth was a guaranteed occasion for water works, but it was the other times that I broke into tears that would really annoy the adult figures in my life. Sometimes it would only take a comment or a look or something seemingly insignificant, but once the tears started to flow there just didn’t seem to be any way to stop them.

As far as my dad went, this would prompt a barrage of disparaging remarks. As far as other adults went, the reactions were varied.

One time, the buses left school without getting all of the students, and I was one of the students left behind. As I sat there in the administration office, I started to panic and cry. One of the teachers there trying to make sense of the madness was Mrs. Stuemiller. She had been my 4th grade teacher the year before, and it was no secret to me that she was not my biggest fan. When she saw me starting to cry she lost control. She marched up to me, placed her face six inches away from mine and screamed, “Cry! Just go ahead and Cry!”

In those earlier years, there were more nights of sleeping on a wet pillow than a dry one.

However, by far the most irritating thing about me was the “mouth” thing. “Catching flies” my dad used to call it. I have no idea why it happened. I would start watching a show, reading a book, or generally focusing on something else and like magic the thing would just drift open. This infuriated my dad. Any time he saw me with my mouth gaping open it was open season on the insults. Comments about catching flies were one thing, but after a while that wasn’t enough for him.

We would often watch sporting events together, my brothers and my father. We would sit on the floor and watch while he sat in his easy chair. Inescapably, a moment would come when I would get caught with my mouth gaping open as I lost my self in the events unfolding before me.

Invariably, this would send my father to the garage. He was after something and we all knew what it was.

He was getting the duct tape.

As he ripped off a large piece of duct tape and taped my mouth closed, my ears would immediately start burning and tears would begin stinging my eyes. The rancid smell of duct tape would choke my nostrils as the edge of the tape chafed the bottom of my nose. Once the sobbing started I would begin to get congested, effectively plugging the airways in my sinuses. Breathing through my nose would become difficult, so I would have to create a breathing hole with my tongue. Eventually, the glue would wear off and it wouldn’t taste so bad.

My brothers would avoid making eye contact with me, and they would do their best to steer clear of acknowledging what was going on. There I would sit, using my tongue to create an air hole around the bottom edge of the tape so I could breathe, praying that dad wouldn’t notice, and sitting in a puddle of tears and humiliation.

This is how my father and other adults in authority felt about me. This was normal for me; this was my every day life. They were always right and I was always wrong. They set the bar, and I didn’t measure up.

I knew I was a geek that would never amount to anything, because they told me so. Why would a boy think differently? Why would a boy doubt those given the responsibility of raising him?

I hated that I couldn’t seem to make them happy, and I hated that I was such a loser. I guess I was just who I was and there wasn’t much I could do about it except try to stay out of their way.

No, I didn’t doubt them… it wasn't my place to.

I was, after all, Ichabod Crane.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Man, the Myth, the Legend?

At five foot six inches tall my dad seemed like a giant to me. Barrel-chested with Popeye arms, he was easily the most powerful man I knew. His thick police style mustache, and close-cropped hairstyle exuded an air of authority that I rarely saw anybody challenge. His personality was quiet but strong, and his powers of persuasion second to none.

He himself came from a rough childhood. His father took up drinking at some point and the results were disastrous. By all accounts my dad's father was a great man until he started drinking, but when he was drunk he was a mean, angry drunk. He could grow extremely violent, and more than once my dad would have to step between his father and his mother or sisters, or sometimes both, in order to shield them from another drunken rage.

My dad was a man of honor. It would not be from him that I learned his childhood history, for he never had a sour word to say about his father. My aunt was more forthcoming with the details of their tortured upbringing trying to survive the wrath of a tormented soul who was drowning his bitter disappointments in alcohol and taking it out on his family. However, my dad would never breathe a word of it, even after we kids had become adults. Earlier than I can remember, and after my dad was an adult, he would give his father a place to live when he had nowhere to go, and my grandfather died knowing he could count on his son.

An extremely hard worker, he moved his way up the ranks in his company and ended up being handed a territory in Upstate New York. It wasn’t long before he held the distinction of top sales rep in the company, and was recognized with a number of prestigious awards. As a result we as a family never wanted for anything. He provided us with a nice home, plenty to eat and new clothes every year. We had every material need met and he was the reason why.

Having served a stint in the Navy, he was a particular man preoccupied with details. He expected his sons to stand at attention when he addressed them and he had no patience for slouching or fidgeting. Anyone or anything that resembled laziness was summarily dismissed as worthless, or not worth his time. He expected perfection when you performed your duties or chores, and he did not settle for less. One of his favorite clich├ęs was “If it’s not worth doing right the first time then it’s not worth doing at all.”

As a youngster I wanted nothing more than to make him proud.

However, my dad was a strict disciplinarian and he ruled our home with fear and an iron hand. His demand for respect was of paramount importance, and our actions were sculpted by our need to abide within the parameters he laid out.

As children, we were never to address him without calling him sir, and it was yes sir or no sir when asked a question. While at the dinner table, we were to keep our faces in our plates, unless specifically addressed. We were taught to anticipate our chores and take care of them before we were told to. If he had to actually tell us to do our chores we knew it was already too late to avoid the consequences of not doing them. We were expected to excel in school, to never question authority, to be better behaved and more attuned than the average child from the average family, and to know all of this intuitively.

He expected compliance from us children, and he would watch us to make sure we were acting in accordance with his wishes. Often, he would sneak up on us when we were unaware and catch us in some act of childish behavior. To affect the most dramatic outcome possible he would burst in upon us with a loud and sudden eruption and catch us by surprise.

To this day loud, startling noises cause me to consider tearing the head off the person who perpetrated the act.

It was common practice for him to watch us play outside from just inside the window, behind a curtain. He would stand there for long periods of time to see what we were up to and try to catch us misbehaving. My brothers and I became experts at detecting his silhouette behind the glass and adjusting our behavior accordingly.

We also learned every creak and groan of the stairs coming up to the second floor and every noise caused by loose floorboards in the hallway leading to our bedroom. Many times, upon his explosive entrance to our room, he would find us pretending to be playing in a manner that we thought he would be least likely to find fault with. Although he almost always did, the end result was not nearly as hard to deal with as when he caught us unaware.

What worried us most was provoking his anger. His rage was legendary, and just a look from him could send me blubbering in a pool of tears. His vicious putdowns and withering words could be unleashed without warning, and it took little from me to raise his ire. Combined with his sometimes-violent outbursts it created a dangerous mix that could go off without any notice.

I don’t remember ever feeling relaxed in his presence. Truth be told, if he was home, nobody in our family was relaxed.

There was no questioning that he was the man, (our household revolved around him), and although measuring up to his standards proved to be a myth for me, he has long since passed from legend to mere mortal.