Archive for June, 2013

I had terrible eyesight as a kid. When I was in 3rd grade, before I was home schooled, I had trouble copying the numbers from the blackboard. The teacher didn’t like me, so she kept putting me in the back of the class for some reason. Anyway, after it was discovered I needed glasses, I was in for yearly checkups. For a while, I felt like I was constantly getting new glasses (which I probably was). I remember one doctor I went to, who insisted my prescription hadn’t changed after I took the eye test.

Me: But it’s all still kind of blurry.

His face got red, and he was clearly pissed.

Doctor: Doesn’t matter. Your prescription hasn’t changed.

Me: …but why is it so blurry?

He puffed his cheeks out and glared at me.

Doctor: You don’t need things to look crisp and sharp all the time.

By this point, I was getting kind of agitated – of course I wanted things to look crisp and sharp. What the hell, dude.

He called Mom in, and explained it all to her. He got more and more irritated as the conversation went on.

Doctor: He’s eating minus.

Mom: Eating minus?

Doctor: He’s addicted to seeing crisper and clearer. He doesn’t actually need new glasses. He can see fine.

I was kind of steamed. Mom was pissed, too. I don’t remember if there was a blowup or not (knowing Mom, there probably was…they all kind of run together, honestly) but if there was I wouldn’t have minded it. There was actually a reason for her to be mad this time.

Anyway, as a kid I always had “trouble” with math, which Mom always attributed to my eyesight. That’s what Mom and Grandma always called it – “trouble”. But it was “trouble” like the Cuban Missile Crisis was a minor disagreement. I could understand stuff like addition and subtraction – usually. But when it came to multiplication and division I was lost. I can’t tell you how many hours Grandma sat with me and the math flash cards.

Grandma: What’s 5×5?

Me: 15?

Grandma: No, try again. Think about it. What are five fives?

Me: 10?

Grandma: Add it up.

It took me a long time, and I used my fingers.

Me: 25?

Grandma: Right. Do you know why it’s 25?

Me: No.

Grandma: Because it’s five added up five times.

I just looked at her blankly. This was gibberish to me.

She tried to explain it to me, but I didn’t get it. I didn’t get that multiplication was a “faster” way to add – it just seemed to be a harsher form of Chinese water torture. We would do the flash cards until I wept – literally wept – in frustration. I eventually figured out that I didn’t need to understand it, just memorize it. I was able – with a great amount of effort – to memorize the times tables up to about 5. After that, I couldn’t keep the numbers in my head. I would cry and yell and throw things. Absolutely nothing in this world made me feel worse than math. Nothing made me feel more like a complete idiot. What’s worse, is because I was “smart” (according to Mom and many, a “genius”), it was an impossibility that I couldn’t understand math. I was just not applying myself. I busted my ass with math, all with meager returns on my investment. I had to use a calculator, or my fingers. I usually eventually gave up on my home schooling tests and cheated my way through them – reading the answers in the teacher’s key. I got A’s and B’s in math, but I knew I didn’t earn them – I didn’t deserve them, because I was too stupid to “get” the math. It made me feel miserable and dirty.

To further add to the irony, musicians are supposed to be great with math (at least, that’s the myth). I remember being in the studio with Russ while he puzzled out how to end a song. He and Paul (the engineer) were going back and forth on what would be the best ending. I piped up.

Me: What about da da daaaaaaa da. That makes sense, right?

Russ was impressed.

Russ: Yeah…that’s it exactly. You must be really good at math.

I opened my mouth to tell him that I wasn’t – that I was actually pretty terrible – but I closed it again. How could I possibly explain it to someone?

It has haunted me throughout my life. I’d panic when I had to make change, or when I gave someone cash – sometimes it wouldn’t be enough, or sometimes it would be way too much. I could never be sure I was doing it right.

When I took my SATs, I got perfect or near perfect scores in English and below average scores in math – and at that, I had to work my ass off with a tutor several times a week. I wept in frustration over my SAT books, just like I would weep in frustration over my college math textbooks. In retrospect, I don’t think I’ve ever cried – literally cried – over anything as much as I have math.

In college, I realized I’d have to take math. The professor was Russian or something, and had a  thick, hard to understand accent. If you had any questions, he’d say “Red Ze Buk” (I assume this meant “Read the book”). If you were a girl, he’d answer all your questions while ogling your breasts and practically drooling. Anyway, I worked hard on the homework – for the first half of the semester. I’d try something, I’d get a tutor, and I’d feel like I totally got it. Then I’d realize it didn’t stick at all. Not only was what I did for homework wrong (almost invariably, I got D’s and F’s on it), but when I went back to it I couldn’t even remember what I thought I had understood in the first place.

You’re supposed to be a genius? I’d tell myself. Some fucking genius.

By the middle of the semester, I had stopped going to the class altogether – it made me too anxious and depressed. Even though it was in the middle of the day – I think it was at 1 PM – I’d just stay in bed the whole day instead of going to class. I didn’t realize until much later that depression had started to get its hooks in me by this point, which probably didn’t make learning math any easier.

I ended up with a D in the class, by the way, which meant I had to retake it. The professor was nice enough to give me a 2nd crack at the final – he said if I got an A he’d bring it up to a C which meant I’d pass. I studied hard and finally took the final. I felt confident and prepared – my roommate who was a math major helped me, as did several other people who gave generously of their time. I even got to use a calculator, which I sort of felt was my ace in the hole. I got an F. I wasn’t angry though…I was just resigned. I looked at the transcript.

Me: Of course. I guess I’m D material.

It wasn’t until about a decade later that i would get tested. I would come to find out I had a legitimate learning disability, at least in regards to math – it had nothing to do with my eyesight after all. I could see the numbers just fine. It explained a lot – why I could never read maps, why I got lost all the time, and why I had difficulty telling time. It wasn’t that I couldn’t tell time – I could – it just took me about 400x longer than normal people. If someone asked me for the time, I’d look at my watch for a long time and they’d think I was being rude and get fed up. But I would actually be looking at the hands and counting in my head (five…ten…fifteen…twenty). I’d come up with the right answer…eventually, but by the time I did they had gotten their answer elsewhere. I could have gotten a digital watch, I suppose, but the irony of it is I really like analog timepieces. Plus I just thought I was stupid when it came to math.

When they tested me, they also did an IQ score, which was humbling. The verbal side of my IQ was really high – I think it was almost “very superior”. But the math side was awful, and brought my combined score down so low that it was “average”. After spending my life believing I was a genius, I stared at the paper. I had answers, sure, and they explained a lot. But now I had hard numbers to go with them. In looking at my score, I don’t think I ever hated numbers more than I did that day. Having the air sucked out of a long held belief is a real kick in the balls. The doctor testing me assured me that I wasn’t “average” just because my total score was. I nodded like I agreed, but I really didn’t. She explained that it was just an aggregated score, and that if you looked at the English side it was really quite high…but I kind of tuned her out at that point. I was well into my own head, beating myself with a cudgel. I had spent a lifetime believing I was smart…and staring me right in the face was proof that I wasn’t. It took me a long time to see past the numbers. Perhaps that’s not surprising. I had so much of my identity wrapped up in the idea that I was different, a genius, or whatever, that it really was a crushing blow to get at the age of 28. I had to come to terms with it eventually, though, and I decided that – numbers aside, I am what I am. Whatever that is.

As I think I said before, I used to sit by myself and practice obsessively. Piano, songwriting…whatever.

Mom: When the answer comes back “yes”, you need to be ready. If you’re not ready and they say yes, you will fail. And it will all be on you.

Such thoughts did their job, I suppose, in that they spurred me along. While she was crazy in the specifics, in general it’s not a bad principle: Be ready when opportunity knocks. I’ve had to water down some of her kookier stuff and put it in a normal framework. I’ve kept what I could, and threw out (or tried to…it’s easier said than done) what wasn’t any good. If I were to ever write a book on it, I’d call it The Tao of Crazy. It would be some eye opening shit.

Anyway, I kind of got a big head. I thought I was the baddest, biggest, best musician. Best actor. Best…whatever. I was making a ton of money (I had gotten booked on quite a few accounts – that means that whenever they did a commercial for a given product, I was called. I had Kool-Aid for a while and all of General Mills, among other things). I got to sing on a record with Micheal Jackson. This was like…I dunno…’93 or maybe ’94. He recorded a Christmas song…don’t recall the name of it, but I think it had something to do with a star. It was at the Hit Factory in New York – this was a big, big studio…they had a special freight elevator that celebrities who were recording would come in and use. It was sort of a back entrance to get away from the press and whatnot. Anyway, it was me and maybe a dozen kids, singing background on this song. Micheal was pretty cool…gave us all signed copies of Dangerous (which I still have) and Game Boys. This one kid, who I knew was a piano player, kept trying to chat me up. He was way into jazz, and he was pretty good. I was so self centered at that point, I didn’t have time in my world for anyone else. Anyway, he asked Micheal if he could play for him. He went over to the grand piano and starts playing – like I said…he was good. Nice kid, too. The more I watched, the more irritated I became. I had a competitive streak about a mile wide, and to watch someone else doing something that I considered my “thing” was like slapping me in the face with a dead mackerel. After the kid was done, I jumped right in. I played Micheal an original song. It was a quasi Rockabilly number (I was also into Jerry Lee Lewis at the time). I had to be better than this kid. He was nice, but I had to blow him out of the water, for the sake of my own ego. My hours of honing my skills, the “games” I played with myself to get better, payed off. Micheal really enjoyed it, but had to be rushed away by his bodyguards. We shook hands. I relaxed a bit…I had re-attained my place (in my mind, at least) as top dog. The kid came up to me…he was stoked.

Kid: That was amazing! You’re really good.

Me: …thanks.

I didn’t give a shit what this kid thought, but it was nice to be recognized. Since I had affirmed my belief that he wasn’t better than me, I had no time for him.

Kid: Let’s jam sometime.

Me: Maybe.

I was the king, he was a peasant.

Uncle Richard noted my shift in attitude, I think, and I think he realized I didn’t have anybody to give me a real lay of the land. Mom was constantly pumping my head full of fantasies. Not that Uncle Richard didn’t believe in me, but he didn’t want me getting an unhealthy outlook or anything. My ego was just the outward manifestation of a flawed worldview.

Uncle Richard: There’s nothing wrong with having an ego. Every artist needs one…it’s what keeps him going. But don’t feed it too much. You understand?

I told him I did, even though I didn’t.

Uncle Richard: Shakespeare was one of the most humble people. Have you ever read his letters?

I shook my head.

Uncle Richard: Read them. He wrote plays that were lauded the entire continent over. Royalty came to see him. Yet he was never proud. If the Bard could be humble, you can too.

I got the point – I was no Shakespeare. I might have had reasons to have an ego, but no reason it should be overinflated. I’m surprised this got through to me, but Uncle Richard had a way with words.

Russ put it differently.

Russ: There’s always someone out there better than you. Doesn’t matter. Keep your head down and do your own work. Don’t look over your shoulder, don’t look at them. Look at your work.

I sat down a bit later with a group of kids my age – we were doing some sort of improv class together. For some reason, probably because I was (over)confident my peers took me very seriously and paid attention when I talked. If my head wouldn’t fit through the door before, it certainly didn’t now. I don’t remember what prompted it, but I decided to play some stuff on the piano. I played a bunch of songs from memory, ending with “Piano Man”. Sort of iconic, sort of cliche, but every piano guy ought to know it. This kid who had been quiet for most of the time, gets up after me.

Kid: You’re playing it wrong.

I probably made a noise.

Kid: Mind if I drive for a while?

I smirked, and scooted off the bench. He played the hell out of the piano, and – though it took me weeks to admit it – he was right. I was making some mistakes in playing the song. There is nothing quite like getting kicked in the balls in so personal a way just when you think you’re bigger than anything else in the world. I licked my wounds for a long time on that one, but I didn’t need to be shown twice. I got the message – Russ, Uncle Richard, and the Universe were trying to tell me the same thing: Take it down a notch or two, kid.

And I did. I realized there would always be somebody better, no matter how hard I worked. There was no finish line, there was no “ultimate” anything. At least not when it came to artistic endeavors. Someone always has a different spin, a better technique, or whatever. I contented myself with mastering my own abilities, not worrying about comparing myself. It was a lot more pleasant of an experience.

Now I look back at how I was, and I can’t help but wince. I truly was full of myself. I carried myself in such a way as to say “Do you even know who I am?” but the truth is, I wasn’t anybody. Not really. My competitive streak – which was way more than just a streak – I whittled down bit by bit. I watered the embers and tamped them down. Competition is a driving force, I suppose, but it makes me an ugly person. I try not to open that door. At the same time, I have to wonder if I haven’t thrown out the baby with the bathwater (as I’ve done with so many things). Maybe being a little competitive is good. Maybe I ought to crack that door just a bit. And a little ego really never hurt anybody – emphasis on the little. Sometimes I miss it. It can be a great cure for depression.

 

 

what year is it

Every time I sit down to write in this blog, this is basically how I feel. Writing – at least, writing about your own past – is sort of a form of time travel. You are watching history unfold to its inevitable outcome, but this time you are an observer instead of a participant. Don’t want to stay in 1993, when your Mom was obsessed with Ross Perot and dragging you to conventions? No problem. Let’s jump to 1997 when you were sitting in a music publisher’s office getting the hell kicked out of your balls. Or we could fast forward to college. Or go back to 1989 and visit Grandpa. But perhaps the most interesting part of the experience for me as been that I get to skip the lame parts. I could explain to you that there were ebbs and flows in Mom’s lunatic behavior. I could explain that her Gestapo style surveillance and paranoia wasn’t a constant thing, just a consistent thread. But there is a line between living and telling (or re-living and telling) where things get lost. I would surely lose you if I didn’t condense at least some things for the sake of writing. Nothing exciting happens on a Tuesday….so we just skip to the weekends (in a time machine, you can do that sort of thing). I try not to sacrifice accuracy as often as possible – I consider myself reporting this, not writing, since it isn’t fiction – but sometimes, for the sake of bringing out the underlying thread of the story, it’s a necessity. Time – and words – are malleable. If I were a different sort of a person, I’d be glossing over a lot. It pains me to actually write out some of the stuff I’ve put up here. A lot of the time, my jaw is set, and I am grimacing, and my brow is furrowed. I look at what I have written and say Well, shit. I can’t say that. And on the heels of that: But did it happen? It did. So I write it. This blog has multiplied more than I ever thought it would. What I mean is, when I sat down to write, I thought it would be a project I would eventually abandon. I thought I had maybe 10, 12 real stories in me at most. But the more I wrote, the more there was. And that scared me. It scared me because I wasn’t willing to sanitize and freeze dry what I was writing. And if I kept it up, I’d have to eventually write about things I don’t want to write about (which, actually, is most things I’ve written about). But I can’t stop. This is the most honest writing I have ever done – good, bad, or indifferent.

Sometimes, I sit down at the computer and look at the screen. I know what comes next. I think (briefly) about changing it – making myself or others look better, or making the situation more demanding so the actions of people involved are more sympathetic. That’s another thing with writing – you can change what happened. But I think the day I do, I lose sight of what this blog is about. And it is about writing things out and setting them aside – so they don’t get swallowed by the sea. And maybe, for myself, getting this out, seeing it on paper, I can get some better perspective on things I’ve only ruminated on for years in my mind. I’m afraid that I’ll be vindicated in my suppositions, but I’m just as afraid that I won’t be. Everybody likes to think they are the heroes of their own story, but the truth is often far more complicated than that.

 

We were driving in the car with Mom – I think we were coming back from NY or something. I had my book in my lap, my finger in a page. I was terrible at losing bookmarks. It’s funny…I was always so careful with everything else, but I must have had thousands of bookmarks during my lifetime. I read so many books – sometimes several at once – that I’d end up losing them somewhere in the pages (or they’d fall out somewhere, never to be seen again). I had a tradition when I finished a book – I’d take a little while…maybe a few minutes, maybe a day…depending on how the book was – and meditate on it. Just really soak it up. When I was done, I’d turn past the flyleaf and the table of contents and the Author’s Note and stick the book mark in page one. Uncle Richard had book marks too…but he was more prone to mark up his books. He’d underline something interesting, or dog ear a page. I couldn’t bring myself to do that. To mark up a book – any book – would be like defacing a holy site to me. I think I was so protective of them because some part of me knew they were portals to other worlds…a real escape for me, a means of transportation. I took care of my books as well as a car enthusiast would take care of a prized ’65 Mustang. It was a means of travel, but it was special too. I had long talks about this concept with Uncle Richard, who firmly disagreed with my conclusions.

Uncle Richard: I love a messed up book. Creased pages, wear marks on the binding…these are signs of a well loved book. Nothing is more special than that.

Anyway, so I was sitting there taking a break from the book. It must have been good, because I was really dwelling on the characters and the story. I suddenly felt a whap! on my leg. I looked up in shock.

Me: Did you just hit me!?

Mom: You’re damn right I did!

She was pissed – suddenly, and out of nowhere. I had no idea why.

Me: What did I do!?

She turned to me in a fury – it’s a miracle she kept herself on the road.

Mom: Wipe that fucking smirk off your face!

Me: I don’t have a smirk…I’m not smirking!

But now I was starting to. I have a thing…something I always felt was kind of weird…but whenever I’m in a conflict, I have a really hard time suppressing laughter. I don’t know why, it’s just always been that way. I don’t find it particularly funny (though I think people look positively absurd when they’re truly angry). I just can’t help it. It makes the situations much worse, and I know that. I often find myself literally biting the inside of my cheek to keep from grinning like a nut. The worse the conflict, the harder I grin, and the harder it is not to bust out laughing. By now Mom was yelling at me – she had started out pissed and was now even more angry. I was suppressing gales of laughter.

Mom: It’s not FUNNY. Quit LAUGHING. Goddammit quit being SMART!

Each word was punctuated with another closed fist on my knee. It hurt. What actually hurt worse is that I felt Mom and I had a sort of understanding – considering how Dad was, I never thought she’d ever hit me. As hurt as I was, my sides hurt worse from holding in my laughter. I had to close my eyes and think of terrible, horrible, depressing things in order to come back down. Once things had been quiet for a while and I got myself composed, I broached the subject.

Me: What exactly did I do?

Mom: You were being smart.

Me: How?

Mom: You made comments.

Me: I didn’t say a word to you. I was reading.

I gestured to my book – still on my lap with my finger still in it.

Me: What did I supposedly say?

She couldn’t tell me. I knew instantly that she had no idea why she was mad or what exactly I was supposed to have done.

Mom: You were being rebellious.

I raised my eyebrows. I have been many things…but rebellious was never one of them.

Me: I think I deserve to know exactly what I did.

Mom: You know what you did.

Me: No I don’t. And it wasn’t fair of you to hit me.

I had her, and she knew it. She couldn’t explain or describe what I supposedly did. She was full of shit, and we both knew it.

Mom: I’m not going round and round with you, Danny.

She accused me of trying to “outsmart” her by “talking over her head”. She said she “wouldn’t continue a conversation like that”. I dropped it eventually.

I understood none of this. It just seemed like I turned 13 and somehow had magically become a horrible teenager. I didn’t think I was acting differently, or doing anything wrong. I mean, I wasn’t shoplifting or drinking or anything like that. But ultimately, it didn’t matter what I was doing – Mom would decide I had done something. I remember there was some sensationalist news story about “huffing“. Supposedly, during the 90’s a lot of kids would inhale spray bottles – cleaner, bug spray…whatever…to get a high. Mom decided I was doing this. I had never gotten high in my life – let alone drunk – and I certainly valued my brain cells more than to try to get a cheap high off of furniture polish.

Mom: We need to talk about something.

Me: Okay.

Mom: I know.

Me: Okay…you know what?

Mom: I know you’ve been…huffing.

I laughed. I couldn’t help it.

Me: Huffing?

Mom: Don’t laugh. This is serious. I know you’ve been doing it. I can tell.

I went from amused to perplexed.

Me: I haven’t been doing any of that. I have no idea what you’re even talking about.

Mom: If I catch you doing it…you’re done.

Me: …okay…

Done meant a lot of things (depending on the subject) – done as in, going to live with my Dad, or her not taking me back and forth to NY anymore, or even kicking me out of the house, I suppose. She was always fantasizing that I was doing something or another wrong – usually drugs. She once went through my entire room, looking for weed. She was kind of pissed when she didn’t find it – she was so sure I was smoking it. I swore up and down that I wasn’t…and as far as I know, I never smelled of weed. Actually, there’s no possible way I could have, because I didn’t have any. One time, when I went away to college, I talked to her over the phone. Within 5 minutes after we hung up, Tim called me.

Tim: Are you high?

I laughed.

Me: Dude, what do you think?

Tim laughed too.

Tim: Mom said “I just got off the phone with your brother, and he was higher than a kite!”

We got a good laugh. At least in college it would have been theoretically possible for me to obtain and use drugs (up to and including anything in mt mother’s fevered imagination). I didn’t, though, but it wouldn’t have mattered – she had decided for whatever reason that I was “bad”. That I was rebelling. That I was a “typical awful teenager”. To be fair, I was probably a bit moody. I was reclusive (from her) and with good reason. But I wasn’t a punk who knocked over liquor stores. I wasn’t stealing the copper pipes in the house to sell for drug money. But I realized that none of that mattered because what happened in Mom’s mind was completely independent of reality. If she were to wake up one day and decide I was a Russian spy, I’d be a fucking Russian spy and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. If I argued with her, I’d be accused of “getting smart”. If I proved her wrong, she’d throw up her hands and end the conversation – she wasn’t going to go “round and round” with me, like a lawyer. The irony of it all was that if I was some kind of drug addled junkie, I wouldn’t have the presence of mind to argue like I did. But, in my mother’s imagination – I did it all. Meth? Yep. Home made drugs? Yep. Pot, of course. Probably over the counter pharmaceuticals, too. Out of nowhere, she’d look at me and yell that I was ruining my life. I had no idea what the fuck she was talking about.

This made it easy to tune her out – to stop taking her seriously. I saw behind the curtain a bit more and realized that if her fears about me were so completely unfounded, there was a good chance she was wrong about everything else. I saw, though, that I would never be able to win her approval. Nothing I did would be good enough, and my behavior could never be compliant enough – she had decided I was a dirtbag teenager. She did (eventually) grow out of accusing me of being on drugs, which I think had more to do with the fact that I got older than anything else. The closer I got to leaving my teenage years, the more quiet her paranoid fantasies about my drug use became. It didn’t stop her from accusing me of other things, though – being lazy and shiftless (despite the fact that I worked hard at my craft and was successful). I think everyone wants at least a nod from their parents. I never got one from my Dad, and likely never will. I may never get one from my Mom either – her perception of reality is just too warped.

Let me leave you with a final thought – a picture of a teenage rebel. Thick glasses, button down shirt, and dorky haircut. A teenager who goes through several books a week and has little time for friends (and few friends, at that). Somewhat of an introvert. A guy who works his ass off writing songs (sometimes 2-3 a day), recording, playing piano, and carving out his acting career. Never done a thing illegal in his life – paranoid, in fact, of getting in trouble in general. Not who you’d picture hanging out at 7-11, smoking cigarettes and committing petty acts of vandalism. But that was me…the rebellious, ungrateful and shiftless youth.

 

 

 

I never grew up with a particular religion…as in, I was not an adherent to anything other than believing in God. My parents both were lapsed Christians. My grandparents were pretty big on church, but not necessarily in a way that they shook their finger in your face and said “God said…” More like they went to church and believed in being good people, and had faith. In my voluminous amounts of reading, it was pretty much inevitable that religion would enter my sphere. There was the Bible, of course, but I was interested in other texts. I read up on Buddhism with great interest…Islam and Judaism. Hinduism. The myriad takes on “what’s out there” (or what isn’t out there) fascinated me, and I became preoccupied with the hereafter. If I had been allowed, I probably would have gone on pilgrimages – not necessarily out of any deep rooted belief, but just as a seeker. But, Mom was not into “weird stuff” and besides…our down time was rather limited. I queried my adopted uncles on their religious views.

Me: Do you believe in an afterlife?

Uncle Richard: Maybe. Maybe we come back as ghosts. Maybe we rot in the ground and that’s it. 

I nodded. I don’t remember my exact question, but I asked something about God. It really riled him.

Uncle Richard: God!? God has a lot of apologies to make.

I was a bit surprised…I had not heard such negative opinions on a (presumably) benevolent God stated so starkly.

Uncle Richard: He lets people die every day. He lets horrible, terrible things happen to people. At any given minute, someone is dying or getting raped or tortured or losing someone. Or starving to death. What kind of God allows that? I don’t need God. He doesn’t believe in us, so I don’t believe in Him. He and I are going to have a talk, if I ever get to meet Him.

I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for that discussion.

Russ was simpler…he believed in the Muse, or Creativity…or whatever you want to call it.

Russ: It’s out there. I think the Muse whispers in everybody’s ear. She might give the same song to 10 people, and only 1 person listens and gets it right. Ya know? The same Muse that whispered in the ear of the great ones whispers in your ear and my ear.

That’s what it amounted to…listening for the Muse. I agree with that too, though there would be a time in my life where I would desert her altar almost completely. There is something that feels right about that, though…almost elemental. Something that came before the conventions of man and will live long after we are extinct from the planet.

Still, I read. I read about a culture where they believed everything – from an elephant to a micro organism – has a life as important as our own. They didn’t bathe, they didn’t wash their hands, they barely did anything for fear of disturbing these organisms. You’ve heard the time travel axiom, I’m sure, where if you kill a butterfly when you go back in time the entire course of history could be altered. Well, it was kind of like that (minus the time travel bit) but taken to an extreme. For months, I stressed about killing bugs…disturbing the natural order of things. I worried when I washed my hands or took a bath. I dabbled in Wicca for a while…bought several books and practiced it. I felt a bit silly when I did, though, and I mentioned it to Uncle Richard.

Uncle Richard: Don’t get involved in the occult.

Me: Um. Okay. You mean like…what, casting spells and whatnot?

Uncle Richard: Yes. It’s…not for everyone.

I shrugged. It was one of the few things I didn’t listen to him seriously about. I admit, I felt a bit silly doing the rituals and whatnot, but what appealed to me was the power (or perceived power) over my own destiny. After practicing somewhat halfheartedly for months – trying to see into the future, trying to influence life events – I became a bit disillusioned. The only thing I ever got out of it was a very real sense of the spiritual realm. I began to see things – black shadows, flitting across a room. Sometimes partially formed apparitions. I worried that I was going nuts…seeing things like my mother did. But people who are crazy tend not to doubt themselves – they believe wholeheartedly that the CIA is tapping their phones or they’re the subject of an alien experiment – you can never convince them otherwise. Somewhat distressed at this turn of events, I turned to Uncle Richard again. I braced myself for an “I told you so”, but it never came. He wasn’t like that.

Uncle Richard: Some doors are difficult to close once you open them.

Me: So…what are they? Ghosts?

Uncle Richard: Probably. And since most people can’t see them, they’re attracted to you.

I shivered. I had no interest in talking to ghosts. Truly, the gild was off the lily – I was no longer interested in harnessing the power of the supernatural. I just wanted it to leave me the hell alone.

Uncle Richard: Maybe they want something. Try asking them.

I didn’t like the concept…whatever they were, they scared the shit out of me. And the fact that they could possibly be totally in my own mind scared me even worse.

Me: Have you ever seen ghosts? Like this?

Uncle Richard: Many times.

Me: And they look like…that? Like shadows?

Uncle Richard: Sometimes, yes. Sometimes they look just like us, but a little more transparent. Sometimes just white figures.

He showed me some Polaroids he snapped around his house – at least one showed some sort of semi-transparent mist that looked vaguely like it had a hat on. He told me another story, about how he and some friends were staying over at this house (I guess they were sleeping on the floor) and he looked over and saw an Indian messing with a blanket. The Indian looked right at him, made some sort of hang gesture that Uncle Richard took to mean “Everything’s fine…lay back down.” The Indian rolled out his own blanket (in an honest-to-God Indian design) and then completely disappeared. The story gave me chills.

I pumped him some more on the subject, and he pointed out that there are different kinds of ghosts – some are intelligent and trying to communicate, and some are just trapped in some sort of repeating cycle. They’ll show up and do their thing whether you’re there or not – they just don’t know they’re dead. I decided to take his advice and try to communicate. I waited until the apartment was empty and stood in what I judged to be the middle of it.

Me: Hello?

Nothing.

Me: Um. Do you want anything? Why are you here?

Silence. I felt silly. I saw a shadow – looked like maybe the legs of a man in a suit – rush across the room.

Me: Knock that shit off. Tell me what you want!

I waited. Nothing else.

Me: Just…leave me alone. I’m sorry if I bothered you.

My attempts to communicate ending in failure, I just did my best to pretend they didn’t exist. If I saw them, I just tried not to freak out. I certainly told no one about them, besides Uncle Richard. I think he was the only person that would have taken it seriously anyway, and not suggested I be heavily medicated for my own safety.

Freaked out from my adventures in other cultures, I craved normalcy. I turned to what I knew – the Bible – and decided that it answered most of my questions. It was something I knew, and something I could get behind philosophically (in the sense of treating others how you’d want to be treated, being a good person and all that). There were no ghosts, there were no shades of grey, or reincarnation or anything like that. It was simple and neat. With relief, I collapsed into it. Perhaps as a result of seeking refuge for my spinning mind and my nagging questions, I became a bit of a zealot. I embraced cultural Christianity in a big bear hug – a hug, by the way, that it never really returned.

Still. There were questions. And there were ghosts.

 

 

 

As soon as I hit puberty, my Italian heritage came to bite me in the ass. A lot of guys get peach fuzz for a while, but by the time I was 14 I almost had a 5’o clock shadow. This, of course, meant it was harder for me to go out on calls that were age appropriate (who wants to see a man-child with a Gandalf style beard plugging Hot Wheels? Anyone?). So we tried every concoction under the sun, except shaving. Mom was worried that if I started to shave, it would just grow back thicker. So, we tried Jolene Cream, which is basically bleach. It made it…lighter, I suppose, but God did it sting. That worked for a while…then Grandma suggested waxing it. Ow. Ow. Ladies, I’m sorry for any of you that have to go through that. It hurts like hell. We limped along like that for a while, trying the best we could to cover the fact that my biology was kicking in.

In the meantime, I was left to wonder about my body. I didn’t have a father to explain that what I was going through was normal. I just knew that all of a sudden I had hair in odd places. My arms – once relatively hair-free – had begun springing little jungles of hair. It was patchy, and I hated it. All of a sudden I had chest hair. And leg hair. And armpit hair. WTF. Seriously. I mean, it wasn’t like a hair sweater or anything – I didn’t look like a Furbie – but to me, I did. I was horrified. It didn’t help that Mom didn’t know what was going on either. I remember swimming with friends. My shirt was off (a rarity…even without the hair I was extremely conscious of my body), and I was feeling pretty good. I overheard Mom talking to one of my friend’s mom’s by the pool.

Mom: …is that…normal?

Friend’s Mom: Is what normal?

Mom gestured to me.

Mom: That.

Mom waved me over.

Mom: Danny, raise your arms.

I was a bit horrified, but I obliged. I already knew what she was talking about – she was voicing concerns that were already in my head daily.

Friend’s Mom: Armpit hair?

Mom: Yeah.

Friend’s Mom: …yes, that’s normal.

I didn’t believe her. I felt like a beast. I mean, it’s supposed to be some sort of rite of passage to get chest hair and all that, and I understood that intellectually (what I did know, I knew from books). But would this shit stop growing before I looked like a wooly mammoth? I sincerely hoped so, but I was apprehensive.

I remember one day, I was staring at myself in the bathroom mirror – it was right before a shower. I looked at myself, disgusted. I gave up…I grabbed a razor and shaved myself all over – chest, legs, ass, armpits..everything. Hell, I even shaved my forearms. I was tired of looking like a mountain man. Here’s the thing though: I didn’t know how to shave. Nobody told me I ought to use shaving cream. Or water. Or how to hold a razor. Or whether to shave against the grain or with it. I’ll give you a moment to soak that in.

Still with me? Good. So, I had painstakingly shaved myself pretty much stem to stern (minus my face). There were razor bumps (though I didn’t know what they were at the time), there were nicks from the razor blade and I was bleeding in places that one probably typically ought not to bleed. Thinking that taking a shower would now be the wisest thing, I hopped in. Oh my God, did it sting. My whole body. Every inch of my body that wasn’t red and screaming was scraped to death (I had gone over certain patches several times just to be sure I got the hair). When I put my shirt on, I bled through it in patchy pinheads. If this was the price for being hairless…well, fuck it. I’d just have to look like a werewolf.

Mom finally gave up on the waxing and bleach. They were valiant efforts, but they could not stem the tide of puberty. I was told that – finally – I should probably start shaving. Considering my first experience, I did so with great trepidation. I was finally clued into the secret of shaving cream, though, and that eased my mind a little. My first attempt made me look patchy and red.

Mom: Don’t you know how to shave?

Me: …not really…

I think she was surprised. I mean, I knew a lot. There were very few things I wasn’t knowledgeable about. Unfortunately, I never bothered much with biological issues in my reading. So, no…I didn’t know how to shave. We called Clint.

He gave me some great tips…suggested I shave in the shower, let the steam get to my face. Told me to go with the grain to avoid irritation unless I had a hot date.

I still remember him sitting there with a Marlboro dangling from his lips.

Clint: Nothin’ feels better than a big pair of titties on a freshly shaved face.

Me: …ok…

Clint was crass and crude…something I really didn’t care for. Actually, it made me rather uncomfortable. But since he was my only source of “Man Knowledge” I decided it would be best to just nod and go along. Like I think I said before, the conversations were horribly uncomfortable and actually fairly graphic, considering I knew very little about sex in general. I’d leave his house with my head spinning, trying to figure out what he meant. I remember Mom freaking out that I hadn’t had the “sex talk” (again, not having a father around makes that kind of difficult) and she turned to Clint. He invited me over.

Clint: Sit down.

He pulled out a chair. He sat on the edge of his bed, smoking a cigarette. He looked at me a long time, considering, sizing me up.

Clint: You know what a clitoris is?

Me: Uh.

I was already red in the face.

Clint: The clitoris. The clit. 

He looked at me, saw I wasn’t getting it.

Clint: The VAGINA

Me: Oh, uh huh. Yeah.

Clint: Okay.

He explained, in vivid detail, how to pleasure a woman.

Clint: And wear a fucking condom.

Me: …okay…

I had no intention of having sex. Besides, it’s not like I had ample opportunity. Life on the road made friendships difficult and certainly didn’t leave room to be alone with peers (sexual or otherwise).

Clint: I fucking mean it. Resivior tip. Spermicide. Trojan’s a good brand. So’s Durex. You know how to put one on?

Me: Uh…I can figure it out.

Clint: Good! Go buy a pack. Play around a little.

I had exactly zero desire to do this. Besides, who the hell wants to go their mother and ask them to buy condoms? If that didn’t cause her paranoia meter to go off, I don’t know what would.

Clint looked at me again, and seemed to be considering.

Clint: High school ass, man.

He chuckled.

Clint: You’ll have easy pickings, sir. You’re a catch.

I said okay. I didn’t believe I’d have my pickings of anything, even if I wanted to.

Clint: And never, ever fuck a girl in the ass. Not even if she begs you.

Me: Uh…

Clint: I mean it. There’s diseases and shit. Literally shit.

Me: …uh…okay…

I really wanted to change the subject. He got distant looking, seeming to remember something pleasant.

Clint: Actually, go ahead and do it. But wear a fucking condom!

My Mom was another fount of wisdom when it came to sex. We had an awkward, very strained conversation.

Mom: So…you know…?

Me: Yes. I talked to Clint.

She seemed relieved.

Mom: Okay, good. Now…Danny…don’t ever get a girl pregnant.

I flushed.

Mom: Not ever. You get a girl pregnant, and your life is over. It’s ruined. Your career is over, your life is over. You’ll be a ditch digger. Do you want to be a ditch digger?

I did not want to be a ditch digger.

She scared the shit out of me. If I had sex, odds were, I’d have a kid pop up in 9 months. Don’t have sex. Not ever. Horrible things will happen.

Mom: There’s girls that will just want you to get them pregnant. Just so you can take care of them. And they’ll have all kinds of diseases and stuff. You’ll get very sick, and…and…your penis will hurt.

I was beet red.

Me: I get it, I get it. Just…that’s enough, okay?

Mom: I’m just telling you. Don’t get a girl pregnant. Your life will be over.

Me: Okay. Can we be done now?

If my Mother had a mantra throughout my teenage years it was Don’t Get A Girl Pregnant. She added it to her litany of fears – that I would be assassinated, that I would be framed for something horrible and go to jail, that I’d ruin my career. She went through these like a devout Catholic fingers rosary beads – daily, sometimes more. My own insecurities, along with Mom’s paranoia and Clint’s ham fisted and crass discussion, made avoiding sex rather easy. I didn’t seek it out (even if I wanted to, I had Mom practically at my shoulder day in and day out), and avoided it when the opportunity arose. It was something for dirty old men to drool over and mom’s to fret over. It wasn’t my concern. Besides, who would want to make out with Cousin It?

 

 

Mom was sitting at the kitchen table, head in her hands, and reading a letter. She wasn’t freaking out, which I thought was odd – freaking out was a fairly typical reaction for her. But from her body language, and the body language of Grandma (who was reading the letter over her shoulder) I knew that the letter did not bear good news. I asked what was up. Mom got up…I could see she was shaking a little.

Mom: I’m calling the accountant.

Me: Mom…whats up?

Grandma gestured to the letter, and I picked it up. A quick scan told me everything I needed to know – we were being audited. I listened while Mom flipped the fuck out on the phone to Patrick (our accountant). I would credit her with being initially calm, but I don’t think she was – I honestly think she was shell shocked.

As I may have mentioned before, the finances were a complete disaster. Aside from somehow gaining the interest of federal tax agents, we rarely had any money to speak of. All the funds – mine, Tim’s and mom’s were co-mingled. No savings accounts, nothing set aside in a CD or a mutual fund. Everything in checking, everything together, and nothing tracked appropriately. Obviously, I didn’t have my own checking out – something Mom insisted that the bank refused to do for me since I was under age. I bought that for a while, but then I started to realize I knew plenty of people who had junior savings accounts. Didn’t matter, I suppose…I never pushed too hard, and the subject inevitably got dropped. On a slightly unrelated note, I didn’t get my own checking account till I was 18 and legally able to do so. I not only had to fight tooth and nail to get that accomplished, I had to do it behind Mom’s back because she refused to allow it. I was proud of that little checking account – proud when I put $25 in to open it, and proud of that little stab at independence. But that came later. For now, the routine was this: If I got a check in, I signed it over to her. If Tim got a check in, he signed it over to her, and it all went in the communal account. I didn’t know I was signing over money – nobody explained what was going on, Mom least of all – all I knew is “that’s the way it’s supposed to be done”. Looking back and knowing I could have refused to sign the checks over at any time, taken them to a new account and had my own money…well. It leaves me a bit dismayed. I could have managed my money better as a kid than my mother did as an adult. I probably would have kept more of it too. But I digress.

The accountant we had hired had been our family accountant for years – when Grandma worked at the courthouse, she met his mother on a bus. He took care of our finances ever since, and we were probably one of his bigger (and more complicated) clients. We made a lot of money in New York, so that meant a New York tax return in addition to the state we lived in. Plus, if I flew somewhere and did a commercial in ,say, CA…another tax return. Not counting Federal, of course.  Anyway. Mom spent the next few weeks flipping out.

Mom: Someone tipped them off! Someone sent the IRS after us!

Me: Who?

Mom: I don’t know. Maybe someone who wants to keep us from Russ! Or maybe Bob.

Me: Would Dad really call the IRS? Why?

Mom: I don’t know.
There were several meetings – we met with Patrick and the IRS agents in his office. They asked lots of questions, most of which Patrick answered. They seemed actually pretty nice, considering. You don’t imagine IRS agents to be nice…maybe sort of like Agent Smith from the Matrix. But these guys struck me as just people doing their job. Anyway, as they were wrapping up, they sort of looked at each other – the agents, I mean – and I could tell there was something in that look.

Agent: We’re just about wrapped up. We just have a couple questions for you…

I had a feeling I knew what was coming – Mom had coached me extensively. She didn’t seem to be worried about anything else, just this one specific thing.

Mom: If they ask you if you signed those checks, you tell them yes.

Me: But I did sign them. So, just tell them the truth. Right?

Mom looked a little uncomfortable.

Mom: Don’t give them a big speech. Don’t say anything. Just tell them that you signed them if they ask you. That’s all. Do you understand?

I told her I did.

Mom: If you say something wrong…if you tell them anything but that you signed the checks, I will get taken away and sent to jail. Then you’ll have to live with your Father.

This was her Ace card, and she knew it – still, she dropped it way too often. Despite that, it still had a dizzying effect on me. I certainly didn’t want my mother in prison. Besides, I had actually signed the checks…I was telling the truth.  It was all just the way things were supposed to be done. Right?

Anyway. The moment of truth.

Agent: Dan…did you sign this?

He handed me a copy from the back of a check. It was stamped from the bank – my signature, Mom’s signature, and our account numbers.

Me: Yeah. That’s my signature.

He seemed perplexed. It almost seemed like he thought he hadn’t heard me right.

Agent: You signed this?

Me: Yes.

Again, the agents exchanged a glance. And all at once…the meeting was over. They were packing up their briefcases. They said they’d call.

Some time later, they did – turns out we took off more deductions than were allowed, or something like that – and they hosed us to the tune of about $6k. Based on what I was making – which was in the hundreds of thousands – this was a pittance. Still. Mom called the agent at his office and visited her wrath upon him. I only heard her side of the conversation, but based on that alone I can’t imagine the agent said much.

Mom: WHAT THE HELL IS THIS!? I’LL TELL YOU WHAT THIS IS – IT’S EXTORTION! EXTORTION FROM THE GOVERNMENT. WHAT YOU PEOPLE ARE DOING IS ILLEGAL!

I could have pointed out that, technically, anything the government does isn’t illegal – since they make the laws – but the point would have been lost on her. Regardless, I don’t even think she took one breath during that phone call. Her propensity for epic fits is truly astounding.

Mom: HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED TO EAT? HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED TO LIVE?

Eventually, he managed to calm her down. I can’t imagine her explosion helped the situation at all. Most people in that position understand that you can’t fight City Hall. I think she knew that too, but she wanted to make damn sure they came away with the imprint of her hand on their face (verbally speaking, at least).

As in all times of trouble, we turned to Uncle Richard. He was furious, but he didn’t think Mom’s screaming fit was a great idea either.

Uncle Richard: They’re bullying you. You know what you do with bullies?

Mom sat forward.

Mom: Bully them back?

Uncle Richard shook his head.

Uncle Richard: Tell everyone what they’ve done. Tell them everything.

He turned to me.

Uncle Richard: Write a book, Danny. I bet they leave you alone if you bring their actions to light.

I liked the idea, though I thought the subject matter was a little dry.

Mom: He can’t write a book about that. He doesn’t understand what’s going on.

Uncle Richard: He can read, can’t he? Just have him look over the files.

Mom shifted in her chair.

Mom: I don’t think anyone would want to read it…

Uncle Richard: It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even matter if it gets published. The threat is there. If the public sees the IRS beating up on a kid, it’s all over. And they know that.

I went home that night, and fired up my computer – a trusty Compudyne 486. As in 66 mHz. As in 3 1/4″ floppy drive. As in, for the early 90’s…it rocked pretty hard. I spent a couple hours on the word processor – I started with the title page, of course: THE IRS vs A 12 YEAR OLD KID. I had what I felt were good few pages, and showed them to Mom. She hated them.

Mom: It’s…not very good.

Me: I kinda liked it.

Mom: You’ve written better. You should probably stick to music. This book isn’t going to go anywhere.

And then and there, it fizzled out. I hate to say it, but I craved her approval (still do…probably always will). Uncle Richard asked about my progress on the book, and I halfheartedly told him I was working on it. It eventually got dropped. And why was Mom so intent on me not writing the book? I didn’t understand at the time, but I think I do now. I’d have had to research, which meant I would have had to go through the files and finances and figure out exactly what was going on in order to make my case. If I researched, I might find…other things. I might realize that the money was flowing like wine at a medieval feast. It might dawn on me that the funds should not only be handled differently, but actually kept track of and no longer be pooled in a common account. Which might end Mom’s free and easy access to big wads of cash. In short, I might get ideas. Me having ideas was the opposite of what Mom wanted, I think.

I’ve had years to think about this, and I’ve come to some conclusions. I don’t think the IRS was concerned with what my deductions were – I think they were concerned with whether or not my mother was committing fraud with my money. I think someone – I still don’t know who – tipped them off to the idea that embezzlement might be occurring, and lots of it. Based on the reactions of the agents, I think that was the main concern. As for the other stuff – the deductions and whatever – well, they had to find something, didn’t they? They had to justify their efforts. I get that. But what they didn’t count on, and what whoever tipped them off didn’t count on, was the depth and breadth of my naivete and how immersed I was in my mother’s world. Still, whoever was behind this was probably ultimately trying to do a good thing – they just didn’t understand the circumstances. I would have had to have known what was going on with my money (a virtual impossibility, since I was both underage and kept in the dark), and I would have had to lie and say I didn’t sign the checks. Even if both factors were in play, there was no way in hell I was going to send my mother to prison. Or be forced to live with my Dad. Still, the fact that someone knew what was going on (or thought they did) and cared enough to call both puzzles and comforts me. Who they were will probably remain another one of my life’s mysteries.