Posts Tagged ‘Family’

Mom used to be absolutely bonkers for contests. Still is, actually. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t worth my time, or if it was a long shot…she thought it was a great way to get “a foot in the door”, as she put it. A foot in the door is an old salesman’s term – it means that you literally would stick your foot in the door so they couldn’t close it all the way. Theoretically, they had to listen to your spiel. Anyway, she was always thinking of the next “big thing” – the problem was, whatever she came up with was either ridiculously implausible or difficult to pull off. I remember her reading a magazine once, and getting excited.

Mom: Danny, look! There’s a contest and the winner gets to play at a fair in Iowa.

Me: Why would I want to play at a fair in Iowa? 

Mom: It’s a great chance to get discovered.

Me: In Iowa?

Mom: Yes! They’re having open auditions…

The auditions, if I remember correctly, were at the crack of dawn and it would have been a total cattle call. That’s what we called auditions where there were hundreds of people. Not that I have anything against Iowa in particular – I’m sure it’s fine – but it doesn’t strike me as one of the top places to get noticed in the entertainment industry. Besides, I was already doing great with acting. I shot this idea down with extreme prejudice. Mom grumbled quite a bit about it – something about me “not listening” to her and being a “rebellious teen” – but the idea died rather quickly, thank God.

Anyway…one idea I couldn’t buck was this contest that Paul Simon was holding. It was a Doo Wop competition, and the winner got the chance to appear in his upcoming Broadway show the Cape Man.

Mom: You should do this!

Me: But I don’t sing Doo Wop. I don’t have a group.

Mom: Well, get a group!

Me: It’s in like…2 weeks. How am I supposed to do this?

Mom: We’ll figure it out.

I sat down and cranked out a quick 50’s style song – I figured my odds would be better if it was something original.

Putting a band together on the fly is a hell of a task – but it’s made significantly more simple if you’re friends with some of the top jingle singers in the business. After a couple quick phone calls, I had a bunch of my friends jumping onto the project with me – Jackie, Eden, Lisa, and Jeff. In their own right, they were all totally awesome singers – somehow, we pulled it together in just a couple rehearsals. Then came a curveball. Turned out, after reading the rules, that you had to be 16 to enter. I was 13.

Mom: So just lie. You could be 16. Who would know?

I shrugged. I was a little worried they would ask for me ID or something (they didn’t), but I figured I had come this far. Mom also wanted us to work with Russ, but Philly was kinda far considering most of my group lived in NY and surrounding areas. I have no idea why she thought this would be productive, but she actually wanted me to sing into Russ’s answering machine so he could hear what we sounded like and offer tips. I thought that sounded silly as hell, but basically went along with it. I figured it couldn’t hurt. We went back to practicing some more. For whatever reason, Jeff started being really ridiculous. Not just hitting on the girls, but actually saying really crude stuff.

Jeff: Mmmm. Tasty!

He flicked out his tongue at one of the girls who had her back turned to him, and slowly licked his lips. The girls asked him to quit it, but he just wouldn’t stop. I watched the girls get more and more uncomfortable as crude gestures were made and more comments were said. Not only was he upsetting my friends, practice was being disrupted. If I have one cardinal rule in my life, it’s this: Be A Professional. Somewhat loosely, it translates to being on time, being prepared, working hard at your given task, and having a positive attitude. There are only a small handful of things that set me off – I’m fairly easygoing – but someone Not Being Professional is one of them. People being demeaning to women and/or minorities is another, so really a couple of my buttons were being pushed. I took a quick assessment of the situation, and looked at the girls. They all looked upset. One of them was sitting on the floor, trying not to cry and doing her best not to look at Jeff. I also decided that Jeff wasn’t going to listen to anyone in the room – it had to be an adult. I didn’t really think, and I’m sorry I didn’t. I decided the best answer would be to rile Mom up against Jeff (there was probably a 50/50 shot she’d actually care about what was going on). I knew exactly what buttons to push, and walked out to her.

Me: Mom, Jeff says Russ doesn’t know anything. He asks why we’re even listening to him.

Mom’s face turned several shades of red and blue in quick succession. I immediately regretted my decision – I had used at atom bomb when a scalpel probably could have done the job. But it was too late. Mom was a bulldozer. She practically charged into the practice room, her eyes full of Jeffrey.

Mom: I WILL TELL YOU SOMETHING. THAT MAN HAS MORE TALENT IN HIS LITTLE FINGER THAN YOU WILL EVER HAVE IN YOUR LIFETIME!

Jeff stood there, gaping. He had no idea what he did, just that this bear of a woman was coming down on him with all the fury of an enraged rhino. He tried to speak, I think, but I don’t think he got much to say. Mom literally roared. Jeff’s Mom came to his defense, grabbed him, and started a (blessedly brief) shouting match before leaving. Mom, evidently happy with her defense of Russ, stalked out of the room.

The girls and I were dumbfounded.

Eden: I guess we just lost our bass.

They were all upset…possibly even more so than before. So was I. I felt dirty. I had never before used Mom’s psychosis was a weapon against her, or her as a weapon against others. I tried to tell myself there was no other choice, and I made the right decision, but it didn’t wash with me. Even if I did the right thing, the ends didn’t justify the means.

We talked for a while, each noticing that the sense of palpable tension had left the room. The practice got back on track – we were all professionals, and we had a job to do. We quickly reworked the harmonies without Jeff. From a production standpoint, I missed that bass, and I was sorry he had left. But from a group cohesion perspective, it worked much better.

It wasn’t until years later that I put together what was actually going on. Jeff was gay – a fact clear to everyone (at least the adults) but him. A lot of the mothers made comments about him. I got – vaguely – what “gay” meant, but I didn’t really understand. With some years under my belt, and hindsight, I get that Jeff was struggling with his sexuality and probably overcompensating. At the time, I just saw a bully who was being an ass…I didn’t see his struggles underneath it. I can’t tell you how much of a shit that makes me feel, even today.

Anyway, the contest made the news, and our group was all over the highlight reels from the night. During the intro, I slipped on the stage – not one of my prouder moments – but I recovered. That wound up on the news, too. We made it to the second round, but we didn’t ultimately win. Still, we got to meet Paul Simon. One of the girls the group – Jackie – did something I’ll never forget, and always love her for. She snatched a demo tape out of my hand (I had been carrying it around on the off chance of giving it to someone) and marched up to Paul Simon.

Jackie: You see this kid right there?

She pointed at me.

Paul: Oh, hey there.

We shook hands.

Jackie: This kid is enormously talented. He’s an amazing songwriter. Listen to his stuff.

She pressed the tape into his hand, with a surprising amount of force.

Jackie: I’m serious. Don’t chuck it in the trash. Listen. You’ll be sorry if you don’t.

I was flushed. Nobody had ever gone to battle for me like that before, and no one has since – not like that, anyway. I thought so then, and think so even more now – she had a mile of guts. I had no idea before that moment that she thought I was good, or  even if she did that she actually believed in me that deeply. This may sound almost silly, especially after everything I’ve written about, but it was one of the most flabbergasting, and pleasantly surprising experiences of my life.

She grabbed me by the shoulder and led me away.

Jackie: If he doesn’t listen, I’ll kick his ass. I don’t care who he is.

We laughed.

The group disbanded after that – not that we weren’t all friends and saw each other often, but we ceased to be a Doo Wop band. It wasn’t really a marketable kind of music, and there wasn’t a whole lot of places for underage kids to play. Besides, who had the time? We were busy making money.

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.

 

 

 

If you’ve been following me this long, you know that growing up I had very few “normal” touch stones to reality. Is it any surprise I had more than a few marbles rolling around in my head (and still do)? I had a lot of thoughts in my head that had to be totally re-examined when I abdicated my throne as Prince of Crazy Town. In fact, I went the opposite direction – everything was fact based and logical. If it was illogical, it was crazy. In geek parlance, I basically became a Vulcan. But in doing so, I think I may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater – lots of things aren’t logical. Spirituality. Art. The Soul. Intuition. Those things are crazy – or can be – but that doesn’t (necessarily) make them dangerous and wrong. Like I said before…I’m learning.

Aside from my OCD issues (mentioned in previous posts), I used to play games with myself. I don’t know how to explain it, but I’d play these games to “test” things – sometimes to push my own limits and sometimes in an attempt, sort of, to ascertain the future and put my worries at ease. I came to think of it as If/Then. Let me explain. I would decide at some point in the day that I had to come up with an idea for a song and write it within 30 minutes (“testing” myself). If I did so successfully, then x would happen (or wouldn’t happen). Let’s say I was worried about getting taken away to live with my Father. IF I successfully completed this task THEN, the worst (living with my Father) wouldn’t happen. If I failed (even by one minute – I did not give myself a break…I was a merciless game master) the worst would be an inevitability. I would end up torturing myself all day – worried about when the call would come, when my Dad would be at the door to tell me to pack my bags. Or maybe he’d just show up and kill us all. If I could successfully play a difficult song 7 times through with no mistakes or hesitations, then I would become immensely successful – the next John Lennon, let’s say. I put this type of weight on things, on almost everything I did. Outwardly, I might have been cool as a cucumber (maintaining what I saw as my professional demeanor was an absolute must) I was inwardly as twitchy as a chihuahua on its 14th cup of coffee. In private, I would pace and wring my hands, worrying over imagined threats or glorious possibilities. When I fell short of my own expectations – failed my own test, lost my own game – it was the equivalent of a nuclear Armageddon in my mind. I would withdraw. I would sweat. I would become so nervous that I couldn’t concentrate on anything. Reading – my usual escape – became so burdensome that I would read pages, forgetting that I had already re-read them multiple times.  I gave one word answers (I was usually quite the talker). I could only focus on the inner struggle and essentially flog myself until my skin was flayed off. I suppose this, too, is some form of OCD, but it always felt a little different to me.

I refused to write down or record song ideas that came to me – I insisted that I remember all of them. I could not let myself rely on the crutch of a notebook. What if a pen was not there at the moment of inspiration? What if I had to go searching for a scrap of paper? No, far safer to rely only on memory. Every night I would recite the songs I had come up with during the day – up to and including the order they were conceived in. If I forgot, if I stumbled, I’d have to repeat the titles multiple times. I muttered to myself a lot.

My family – the ones I more or less let loose around (as much as I could let loose…which wasn’t much) – didn’t notice or care. I took this to mean that I was normal. Mom was normal. Everybody was peachy. Nope…everybody here is completely sane and stable. The one time I had something to compare my family life to absolutely rocked me. My Grandmother had a church friend with some kids my age – really sweet family…just good people. Anyway, she invited me to stay overnight at their house and go to church with them the next day. I ended up being extremely uncomfortable about staying over – afraid they’d accuse me of stealing something, or something would go horribly wrong – and insisted I be driven home. I fretted and obsessed over this – worried that the mom would flip out. She didn’t…she seemed very cool about the whole thing. I was suspicious, though. I still went to church with them the next morning – because of having to swing by and pick me up again, they were late. It was hectic – they were running around, grabbing stuff and jumping into the car. Supposedly, the kids weren’t supposed to eat in the car – the mom had set out cereal and milk or something. Instead, one of the kids grabbed a muffin. There I was, crunched in the middle of the back seat, staring at the offending party. I looked at the mom – I hoped to God I wasn’t about to be in the middle of an epic blowup. If this had been my mom, there would have been several freak outs and explosions before we got out of the driveway. I braced myself the entire ride to church. Everyone seemed oddly relaxed and happy, which made me even more nervous. This lady must be truly fucked up. I waited in trepidation. We finally pulled into the church parking lot about 15 minutes late. It as at this point that she noticed her kid eating the muffin. She just shook her head.

Friend’s Mom: Just don’t get crumbs everywhere, k?

I think I just sat there and looked at both of them. I could not believe what I was experiencing.

Friend’s Mom: We better get in there…we’re late.

We unbuckled and walked across the parking lot. No freak out. No screaming. No worrying that we would all die as a result of being late. No worrying that we were being judged by an invisible third party (given that we were going to church, the latter was a real possibility).

What.the.fuck.

I don’t remember the sermon, or anything else that happened that day. Besides, that one incident impacted me more than any words from a preacher could have. I’m not talking a religious or spiritual impact, I’m talking like experiencing color for the first time. I had been in the black and white part of the Wizard of Oz movie, and now I was in Munchkinland where all the witches were dead and people inexplicably burst into song. I wanted to shake this woman, to slap her kids. I wanted to scream “What in the hell is wrong with you!? Why aren’t you people freaking out?!”

The wheels had started to turn in my head though, and the conclusion was fairly easy to draw – one of these two groups of people is normal. The other one isn’t. I thought of nothing else for the entire day. Is this even normal? And if it is, does that mean Mom isn’t normal? What about me? Those kids didn’t seem jumpy and agitated…does that mean I’m fucked up? Oh God. I’m fucked up, aren’t I?

I began to reexamine everything in this new light. If it’s not normal to freak out about being late…is it normal to threaten suicide? Or think your kid’s music teacher is embroiled in the Mafia underworld, and that people dress up as him to come and teach? Mom believed all this, I had no doubt. Did that make her crazy, or just misinformed? And if I believed it, did that make me crazy too?

 

So I hate moving (even though I’m actually about to do so). Even as a kid, I couldn’t stand it. Aside from the thought itself being terrifying, it was a huge pain in the ass. When we moved to New York so Tim could do Broadway, it was another fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type operation. We hit the city with nowhere to go, so we stayed at a place Tim and I affectionately called the Mildew Palace. This was a hotel that had maybe been nice in it’s heyday, but was now falling down around the ears of the proprietors and unwitting guests. Signs promised “New Renovations!” and HBO. I assure you, the renovations – if they existed in the first place – weren’t any newer than a couple decades old. The best thing I can say about the place is that there were no rats (at least, not that I saw) and it was clean-ish. We checked in for what would be a two month stay (and actually felt like several years) in the middle of the worst heat wave I had ever experienced. To my memory, it was 110 degrees in the shade, but maybe it just felt that way. The best part was that our hotel did not possess central air (evidently not one of the “New Renovations” promised on their banners). There was an old window unit that looked to be from the 1970s and sounded like a Harley Davidson when it started up. I’m serious, you could not watch TV or have a conversation when it was on. So this led to a vicious cycle of us having to turn the air off to talk or watch TV, getting way too hot, turning it on again, getting annoyed by the racket, and turning it off for as long as we could handle it. There was, as I recall, only one setting – HIGH/COLD. Despite the noise it did managed to keep the room cold as long as you were right by the unit. Tim and I used to fight for a spot right by it – we’d usually just end up taking turns, but the argument was over who would go first.

Tim: I’m hot.

Me: I’m more hot. Look, I’m sweating. Plus I’m older.

I often played the “Big Brother” card – I had no shame. There were several times I would open the mini fridge and stick my head in for a few minutes. The fridge looked suspiciously newer than everything else in the room (New Renovations!), and frankly I would have opted for units that didn’t sound like a semi truck or expel waterfalls of condensation down the sides. What can I say? My priorities and management’s obviously differed. That latter bit – about the water – was exactly why Tim and I called it the Mildew Palace. The condensation from the AC unit was so severe – and had been going on for so long – that there was mildew everywhere. The room kind of had a stale smell to it, too, but I’ve found that’s par for the course in all but the nicest hotels.

Anyway, after our time at the Mildew Palace came to an end (it wasn’t a stay, it was a tour of duty), Mom found a place through a friend of our agent. It was an older apartment, but it was nice. We were going to be subletting it from a guy named Ken for a couple months while he was off on tour. I didn’t really deal with him, or pay much attention to the deal that Mom made. I was hot, I was tired, and I was not looking forward to carrying heavy bags block after block. In retrospect, I’d say this guy was pretty picky. He gave Mom some kind of list with the things he wanted taken care of around the apartment. There were two trees (really more like bushes) that seemed to be an area of concern.

Ken: I need the trees watered, like twice a day.

Mom nodded.

Ken: And I want my cleaning lady to come in at least once a week.

Mom said okay. I honestly doubt she was listening.

Ken: And don’t paint or anything, and please don’t hang anything up…

There was a laundry list (or so it felt to me). Ken wrote it all down for Mom, who handed the list to me.

Mom: Here.

Me: What’s this?

Mom: It’s the stuff we’re supposed to do. Make sure it gets done.

Me: Okay, sure.

I ended up losing the list, somehow. The trees were watered sporadically the first week, then completely forgotten about. It wasn’t anywhere close to being on Mom’s radar. I tried to do it for a while, but I kept forgetting. I was 12. I had books to read and songs to write. Watering trees was not my responsibility. Besides, Mom was supposed to be the one doing it. I reminded her a few times, but she forgot too. The tries died a slow, miserable death.

The cleaning lady did come, though – that’s probably the one part of the list that Mom kept up with (though she did bitch and moan quite a bit about how expensive it was). This place was literally around the corner from a movie theater, and 2 blocks away from where a friend of mine lived. We had met each other at auditions and hit it off – he was as avid a reader as I was, and into comics as well. We only got together a couple times while I lived there, but he turned me onto a pretty cool comic shop that had tons of back issues.

It was a studio apartment, and frankly too small for 3 people to live in, but Tim and I didn’t complain. Anything was better than the Mildew Palace. There was a couch, a queen bed, and a floor. Mom took the bed, and I insisted on the couch. This left Tim with the floor, but he didn’t seem to mind – he claimed to prefer it. At first I was skeptical, but I have actually seen him turn his nose up at a bed (or a couch) and sprawl out in blankets on the floor. Anyway, it was a hard wood floor – I can’t imagine it being very comfortable – but we got him a sleeping bag and a ton of blankets. When I was making my couch/bed, I spotted something behind the cushions. Actually a lot of somethings.

Me: Dude, come here.

Tim ambled over.

Me: …what the hell is this?

I showed him what I had in my hand. He examined it.

Tim: A pill, I guess. Hm.

He was already fairly well read in medicine and science, so if anyone know what this was, it’d be him. He turned it over in his hands.

Tim: I think it’s Prozac.

Me: Huh.

I examined the pill more closely, and damned if he wasn’t right. PROZAC, it announced, in serious lettering along the side.

Me: Well, there’s an awful lot…

We pulled off the cushions, and found about 15 capsules. We told Mom, who concluded that Ken was some kind of crazy drug user.

Mom: Prozac…isn’t that the pill that makes you crazy?

It was an anti-depressant that had been getting some bad press lately – there had been some killings or something and Prozac was being blamed.

Me: I don’t think it makes you crazy. I think its supposed to stop you from going crazy.

Mom: Well. I bet he’s taking too much. Look at all these pills!

Freaked out, she called Clint. Clint was the son of Doc, who was our family doctor starting with Grandma. Our families went back generations. Clint was an egghead’s egghead – he had a business degree, a law degree, and a degree in medicine (he practiced none of the above, and pretty much existed taking care of his aging father and living off his investments). He was abrasive, crude, and jocular…as a kid, having a conversation with him was always enlightening. He used to tell lots of dirty jokes I didn’t get until I was much older. He told her that the guy was probably depressed and depression doesn’t necessarily mean dangerous. Her fears assuaged, Mom dumped the pills in the trash and said no more about it.

One of the cool things (to me, at least) about where we lived was that I could people watch. I wasn’t trying to be a peeping tom or anything, but it was difficult not to see in people’s windows when they’re right across from you. I’d glance over and see some guy making dinner, or a woman walking around in a bathrobe, or a fat guy in shorts watching TV (as far as I could tell, this guy never moved. I wondered several times if he might be dead). I’d look down at the street below and watch the tops of people’s heads bob past – the hatted and the hatless, bald spots or curly locks. It was actually a rather egalitarian view.

Another thing I was interested in was Ken’s CD collection – he actually had a rather nice stereo as well. I discovered Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell, but he also had a ton of Billy Joel CDs. I was already a big fan, but this guy had CDs I didn’t even know existed. I listened to a lot of music.

After a few months, Ken came back. The apartment wasn’t exactly in disarray – as promised, we kept the cleaning lady coming and didn’t put any holes in the wall. The first thing he saw when he walked in was his dead trees. He gasped.

Ken: My trees!

He ran over to them, running a hand through the dead leaves. By this point, they were pretty much a lost cause.

Ken: Did you even water them!?

Mom: Yeah, we did. They just died.

We totally did not water them, but I wasn’t going to open my mouth. I’d rather deal with a pissed off guy for 20 minutes than my Mom for several days.

He checked out his stereo, and found a CD had gotten jammed. I have to admit, that was totally me – I feel bad about it, even to this day. It was a total accident…I went to swap out some Cat Stevens for some Billy Joel and somehow the tray got pushed in before the CD was totally flat. It had actually happened a few weeks back, but I had been too embarrassed to tell Mom. Besides, I could hardly blame it on Tim who cared exactly zilch for the stereo system – I was the only one to actively use it.

Ken: WHAT.

He pounded the EJECT button. The system whirred, but didn’t give up the CD. It was no surprise to me – I had been trying for the last few days and gotten similar results. I suppose I could have pried it open with something, but I didn’t want to risk damaging it further.

Ken: …what.

Mom: What now?

Ken: Who the hell broke my stereo?!

Mom walked over.

Ken: It’s jammed, see?

He smashed his fingers against the EJECT button repeatedly.

Mom: I don’t know anything about that.

True. She didn’t.

Mom: Danny, do you know anything about this?

Hot panic rose inside my chest. I didn’t care so much about Ken, who, for all intents and purposes we never had to see again, but I didn’t want Mom pissed at me. And I definitely didn’t want 2 people pissed at me. And Mom would definitely be pissed if she had to pay for a broken stereo. I quickly ran through possible dialogue options in my head, and decided on the simplest one.

Me: I have no idea.

Mom: I didn’t think so. Maybe the cleaning lady did it?

Ken practically exploded.

Ken: The cleaning lady!?

He stormed into the bathroom, where he had evaluated another disaster. He was pointing, like the finger of an angry god, at the bathtub.

Ken: And I suppose that’s her fault too!?

The tub was stained around the drain – nothing huge, I’ve seen it several times with many tubs. Just rust or whatever. I wouldn’t have said it was the cleaning lady’s fault per se, but it was either there before or she started doing a lousy job on the tub. I knew when to keep my damn mouth shut, though, and did so.

Mom: That was there before.

Ken: No it wasn’t!

Mom: It was!

Ken: It was not!

He was practically spitting now, and Mom was getting herself worked up even more. Not good. Not good at all. Tim and I exchanged a look and removed ourselves to the main room while they bickered.

Ken: Get out!

Mom was belligerent, and they argued some more. Fortunately, we knew the last day of the lease was coming and we had our stuff mostly packed. Again, I sighed inwardly at the prospect of carrying bags and bags of shit for blocks. Mom returned the following day with a check. Since subletting technically wasn’t allowed in the apartment complex, we had to say we were cousins of Ken’s if anyone asked (no one did). I think everyone basically knew what was going on, but kept their nose out of it. Subletting was sort of an open secret in New York – everyone did it, but nobody knew anything about it. Mom decided she’d get revenge by blowing the whistle – but she was afraid to take the heat of blowing the whistle, so she sort of did this weird passive aggressive thing. She flashed Ken’s check to the doorman – probably too fast for him to see what it was, anyway, and I doubt he would have cared if he knew. But Mom felt she had pulled one over and gotten “revenge” so she was satisfied.

The search for another apartment was on, and we were in a crunch. At the repeated urging of both of her sons, however, we did not return to the Mildew Palace.

 

 

 

 

There’s a recently acquired Polaroid on my fridge these days. It’s was taken some time ago – maybe in ’90 or ’91 – and it’s my first audition with what would turn out to be my longtime agent. We reconnected recently (or, more specifically, Mom reconnected with her) and she passed along this Polaroid. It’s just a basic shot of me, at 8 or whatever, at the agent’s office. They wrote notes on the back: Cute kid, good reader. I see that kid, shoulders straight, starry eyed, and marching toward what can only be a glorious future. Every morning, we stare at each other across time and space – me, the depressed 30 year old and him the idealistic Wunderkind. I am not anything like he would have wanted to turn out, I’m sure. And he’s so very young, and has no idea what’s ahead – the soaring highs and the crippling lows. I would tell him about it – warn him, prepare him, comfort him. I wouldn’t tell him everything will be okay, because it won’t. Not terrible, I suppose – it could be much, much worse – but certainly not what he imagines. But the past is the past, and as they say, it is another country. I have a passport, but I am no longer a resident. I’ve often wondered how the two of us would interact – Past Me, and Future Me. I don’t expect we’d get along very well – Future Me would think Past Me was naive, full of himself, and wound way, way too tight. Past Me would think Future Me was a mopey underachiever who somehow ruined (or allowed to be ruined) Past Me’s plans. I think they’d strangle each other in all of 2 seconds.

Past Me: Get off your ass and do it! You know you can! Why are you being so freaking lazy?

Future Me: You don’t have any idea what I’ve been through! Just wait and see. You’re in for some real surprises, kid.

Is that normal, to feel like past you/future you wouldn’t get along at all? Hm.

When I was about 10, Mom started seriously researching family history – she was insistent that Grandpa told us we were related to Arthur Freed – a famous composer and film producer from the golden age of Hollywood. And when I say that she did research, I mean I did research – she’d take me to the library and grab a book and tell me to read it (which I did) and tell her about it (which I also did). While I didn’t remember Grandpa saying anything specifically about that, he did die when I was 7. Although I have vivid memories of him, it’s entirely possible he related such stories to the family. I didn’t exactly doubt Mom’s testimony, but I was hesitant to get behind it 100%. I’m still not sure what’s the truth – so much of my past is bullshit mixed with delusion mixed with reality – it’s hard to sort it all out sometimes. In the end, I guess it doesn’t matter. In researching, for whatever reason, she came across an cousin of Grandpa’s who was still kicking. Her name was Leah, and she didn’t live terribly far from us – maybe 20 minutes down the road. We hadn’t spoken to each other in quite some time – at least since I was born, so that would be 10 years minimum. But Mom suddenly decided to reconnect, talking about how family was important and we shouldn’t forget about people. I knew it was bullshit, of course, because I knew she had an ulterior motive – Mom often did. She wanted to get into Leah’s scrapbooks to find pictures of the Freed family, and maybe get some sort of testimonial from her that we were indeed related (she got both, for whatever good it did her). Leah was a strange lady, at best, and by all accounts not a terribly good person. Back in the day, she and her husband had impersonated Grandma and Grandpa in order to get a large loan (I think it was for a car, if I remember my family lore correctly). I imagine such things were easier to do back in the 50’s and 60’s – no computers or anything. So I guess they were basically identity thieves before such a thing existed in the public consciousness. Anyway, I suspect that little stunt at the bank was the reason our families didn’t speak. Grandma wasn’t real happy about it, but Mom did her best to smooth things out and Grandma went along (she usually did this in things that involved Mom). Long story short, bygones were bygones. Leah had a small house with a trashy front yard – lots of lawn gnomes, globes, and ceramic squirrels. You know the type. Mom pulled me aside before we got in.

Mom: Leah has a…funny hand. Don’t ask her about it.

Me: Funny how?

Mom: Just…don’t ask about it. You either Timmy.

My mind was already spinning with possibilities – was it a stump (I had seen such things before)? Was it some kind of horrific tentacle? Did her arm terminate in a hook? It wasn’t long before I found out. It turned out “funny hand” was as apt a description as “pretty hot” is to a heat wave. Regardless, it wasn’t her hand, it was her forearm – it grew pretty much straight for a ways, then seemed to have decided to make a full on U-Turn. It didn’t get quite all the way back around, but it looked like it had given it the old college try. I’m not going to lie, it freaked me the hell out. I hadn’t been around many people with disabilities (or deformities for that matter) and it always made me feel funny – a little alarmed and nauseous at the same time. I didn’t make fun of them or anything – I felt really bad for them – but I certainly didn’t want to be around them. Add to the fact that Leah’s house wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of cleanliness (and the fact that I basically was all about clean and tidy) and you had one uncomfortable 10 year old. Her house smelled like must, sweat, and old dogs – lots of dogs. She only had one ancient golden retriever but I swear to God it smelled like a herd of maybe 10 or 15. Everything either looked moldy and dilapidated or smelled disgusting. After that one time of going to her house, Mom decided that it would be better if she came to ours (I breathed a giant sigh of relief when this decision manifested itself). Even though she still smelled like her house (a special brand of cologne I thought of as Old Sweat and Million Dogs), it was at least tolerable. She seemed nice enough, I suppose, though I didn’t talk to her much. We had dinner a lot, and I had a hard time eating when she was around (mostly the smell, honestly, but the sight of the hand was upsetting enough to turn my appetite). I’d be cutting into a big slice of ham steak, and get a whiff of must and dog and just put my fork down. After Mom got what she wanted (which took several months), we were pretty much done with Leah. Mom stopped inviting her around, and started making excuses when she called up. I felt an odd mixture of relief and pity – I felt kind of bad that Mom had used her and was basically dropping her, but thanking God I didn’t have to endure torturous dinners with that smell hanging over me like a cloud. I can still remember it today, even years later – it makes me think of rotting bricks. It still makes me wrinkle my nose.

When she died, she didn’t have any direct relatives except for Mom. Basically, Mom went through the house and sold what was valuable and tossed what wasn’t. Most of it was junk, so 95% of the stuff was stuffed into contractor garbage bags and tossed on the curb. What wasn’t junk smelled awful, or had mold, or was under about 3 inches of dust. Nobody wanted anything. At Mom’s repeated insistence that we take something – anything we wanted, she said – Tim selected some sort of turtle knick-knack, and I picked up a clear paperweight with pennies suspended in it. I couldn’t tell if it smelled – I’m sure it did, just by virtue of being in the house – but it didn’t look nasty like a lot of the other things.

The last thing to go were the papers, which Mom and Grandma went through. Most was of no consequence, at least that I remember, except for a pile of her personal writings. I tried to catch glimpses, but I couldn’t quite make it out – and Mom and Grandma did not want to let me see it. Since it was a secret, I was curious and pestered. Still, they didn’t give in. I overheard a conversation between Mom and a family friend who was helping her go over the papers.

Friend: …horse shot…?

Mom: Yeah. You know. Like, semen.

The friend laughed.

Friend: hooooly shit.

I did manage to catch glimpses of Leah’s scrawling script – I had no idea what I was reading at the time, but I understood enough to be revolted. With the benefit of hindsight, I now see Leah had written about 100 pages of sex stories. With horses. Not like, having sex with a guy on a horse. Her. Having sex. With a horse. Sometimes horses in the plural sense. I’m sorry if you were eating just now – it was pretty foul and explicit. Like I said, Leah was weird.

But back to what I was talking about earlier. This blog has been my passport to another country – the past in general and my past specifically. I feel a little like a paleontologist who is digging for dinosaur bones. I don’t know what I’m looking for, exactly, just that I’m playing around in the dust of a dead world, hoping to exhume something interesting and useful. Except what I’m digging up is liable to still be alive.

 

I don’t know what got me started on the subject, but I was thinking today about how paranoid I am about bugs crawling into my ears. Whenever I go out to a park in the summer and get those gnats flying around, I start to inwardly freak out that they’ll find their way into my ears or something. To illustrate how much this bothers me, I’ll give you an example. Nothing wakes me up from a sound slumber – sometimes not even an alarm. I can sleep wherever – on a train, in a car, beneath a blaring fog horn. It’s largely the product of having a commuter childhood, I think – a great portion of my life was spent in a moving vehicle. Anyway…nothing will snap me awake faster than feeling like there’s something in my ears. I start to worry it’s a bug, and then rub it or whatever until I’m satisfied it’s not. When my anxiety about this is particularly bad, I actually get up and clean out my ears in the middle of the night. I know it’s a relatively irrational fear – my conscious mind is fully aware of this. I just can’t shake it though.

It all started when I was visiting L.A. during a commercial shoot when I was 8. We were out on the town, our pockets fat with per diem (an industry term for “spending money”). A lot of sets will give you some amount of cash to take care of meals or clothes or whatever – it’s usually a generous amount, much more than a typical person might need. Rest assured, you’re not regulated to eating off the dollar menu when you have that kind of cash in your pocket. Anyway, we were sitting in traffic (which is a common practice in L.A.) and there was some sort of preacher on the radio. I’m talking one of the over the top televangelist type guys. And he was telling this story of a “miracle” that had supposedly occurred.

Preacher: Now, I’m telling you brothers and sisters that this little six year old boy – he was no more than six, brothers and sisters – he got a BUG in his EAR. That’s right. A BUG had managed to worm its way into this little child’s ear!

He didn’t say bug. He said BUG. All in caps. It sounded like he was throwing up.

Preacher: Now this little child’s mother and father, they took him to the doctor. And the doctor was perplexed, brothers and sisters, I tell you he was perplexed. You see, there was nothing they could do for this little boy who had a BUG IN HIS EAR.

He was getting wound up. I was fascinated.

Preacher: The doctor, with aaaaaaaaaalll his understanding and modern science, told them that there was simply nothing they could do. This BUUUG had worked its way so far into this child’s EAR that it was making its way to his BRAIN.

His radio audience gasped audibly. I was horrified, but riveted. How the hell did a bug get to someone’s brain?

Preacher: Now, this little child – only a six year old boy, brothers and sisters, just a six year old boy – had only days to live. The doctor informed his parents.

A long, meaningful pause. The crowd waited. I waited. The preacher burst out, suddenly even louder – a fact which seemed impossible.

Preacher: But I TEEEEEELL you, brothas and sistahs, that GAWD performed a MIRACLE on THIS. LITTLE.BOY. Can I get an amen?

It turned out that he could.

Preacher: This little boy was listening to THIS VERY PROGRAM several weeks back. And it is thanks to a miracle of GAAAAAAWD that he is alive toDAY! You see, brothas and sistahs, you see on that day several weeks ago, I was preaching. And the Lord laid it on my heart to reach out with His plan of Salvation-ah. Oh yes He did. Can you say hallelujah?

They could.

Preacher: And this little boy, this little boy that the doctors couldn’t help with all their modern science, he was LISTENING. And he accepted GAWD-AH into his heart that very night.

Cheers and applause.  I just wanted to hear how he got that freaking bug out of his ear.

Preacher: And he laid his tiny little hand on the top of the TV – and he prayed the sinner’s prayer with me, just as many of you may do tonight. And the instant he laid his hand on that TV…

There was a loud POP as he clapped his hands into the microphone.

Preacher: That BUUUUUUUUG dropped over DEAD! It was a MIRACLE OF GAWD! Can I get an amen?

Many amens were had.

Preacher: Now, if you’ll just reach into your heart – think about that little boy now, brothers and sisters – and reach into your heart, and see if the LAWRD isn’t telling you to give something to this ministry toDAY-ah. It could be five dollars. It could be TEN dollars. It could be TEN THOUSAND DOLLAHS CAN YOU SAY AMEN!

Mom shut off the radio. I had heard enough anyway.

Me: Mom, do you think a bug can get into your ear like that?

Mom: Um. I don’t know. I don’t think so.

Me: But what if it could?

Mom: It’s pretty unlikely.

Me: But it could, right? Would I have to go to the doctor?

Mom: I guess you would. It’s just not going to happen, though. That’s not a normal thing.

I could tell she was getting irritated, so I shut up. I was pretty worried, though. Over dinner, the thought that bugs (or BUUUUUUUGS if you prefer) could get into your ear and crawl into your brain really preyed on me. I figured that even if medical science couldn’t cure me, I had a fail-safe. Just find a preacher on TV and lay my hand on the screen. Nevertheless, the idea itself gave me the freakin’ creepy crawlies. I found myself shrugging and shaking my head all night, discouraging imagined bugs from burrowing into my brain.

It stayed with me, right up until a checkup I had some years later. I was having some kind of ear infection, and Doc was checking out my ear. He seemed concerned, and taking an awfully long time looking at this one ear.

Me: What? What is it?

Doc: I thought I saw wings fluttering…

My eyes grew huge.

Me: Like a bug!?

Doc pulled back.

Doc: Yeah, but it must have been my eyes.

The guy was pushing 75 at that point, so I’d bet dollars to donuts it could have been. Nevertheless, no bug was found. But good God did that send me into a fit of panic. It served to further cement an already deep seated fear into my psyche.

And that, brothers and sisters, is how a phobia is born.

Can I get an amen.

I realized a couple days ago that I’ve been focusing a lot on negative things in regards to my Mom. Part of what makes the story so interesting (and cathartic for me) is writing about all the crazy, off the wall shit she did. A lot of that ends up being negative, because the things she did were either negative in and of themselves or had negative ramifications (my upbringing is probably the root of some of my more serious problems with depression, anxiety, and OCD for instance). But I don’t want to give the wrong impression – I don’t hate my Mom. I don’t even blame her for most of the stuff she did. Her actions stemmed from an illness (albeit a mental one) – and one she is no more responsible for than someone who comes down with the flu. Some in my life think it’s strange that I don’t blame her more or carry a grudge. For one, carrying a grudge isn’t my thing – besides, I have enough other things to worry about in my life. Secondly, at the heart of it all she’s a good person – more messed up than most, perhaps, but still a good person. I have no doubt she would take a bullet for me in an instant (she said as much multiple times when I was growing up and the Mafia was supposedly stalking us). I don’t doubt, too, that she would give me her last dollar, or do anything she could to otherwise help me. Perhaps this wouldn’t come about in a conventional way – likely, it wouldn’t. She would get it into her head I desperately needed something I didn’t ask for (and didn’t actually need) and get it for me. I learned a long time ago not to question this, and just accept it as generosity even if the gift itself isn’t particularly on the mark. Most of what she does, however misguided, is out of a sense of love. A friend told me a few days ago that my Mom is drowning in good intentions. I think that’s pretty accurate.

In short, this is one of the reasons this blog has been so hard for me to write. Obviously, a lot of the stuff (I speak mainly of her delusions) had to be kept “secret” and never talked about, but it’s more than that. It’s sort of pulling back the curtain on my family, and that feels weird. Almost like a betrayal sometimes. That’s one reason, I think, that I don’t write even more often (though I’m sure twice a week is plenty for you guys to read). To illustrate the importance of what I’m talking about, maybe I should give you a peek into my family dynamic a little more. Grandma knew, I think – or at least strongly suspected – that something was wrong with Mom. For all I know, something had been wrong all her life. The subject of her temper (and especially any delusions) was carefully sidestepped, at least by Grandma. Granted, she came from a different generation – one where mentally ill family members were hauled away to the nut hatch by the state. I don’t doubt that some part of her feared that outcome. Whenever Mom would yell or throw fits, Grandma would either stay silent or take Mom’s side. Whatever the issue was – let’s say I wasn’t practicing often enough – Grandma would come up to me after the storm was over and talk to me about it.


Grandma: Come on. Let’s practice your piano.

Me: Why? She’s just being ridiculous.

Grandma: We better do it. I don’t want your mother to yell.
And we’d practice, or clean my room, or do my homework or whatever it was that Mom was bent out of shape about. Sometimes – usually – it had little basis in actual reality. But when it did, it made things a little easier to manage. My point is, we went on like that. Heavy rains would come, the dam would creak and groan, and Grandma would come along with sandbags and shore it up. The dam never actually broke, in that the underlying issues were never addressed – Mom wasn’t told she ought to get help, or that she was nuts, or that she was being unreasonable. That dam didn’t break largely because of Grandma. She loved Mom. She loved Tim and I. She wanted the family to stay together no matter what, and I wanted the same. Love covers a multitude of sins. Grandma was empathetic about everything – even sympathetic – without acknowledging it directly. Mom didn’t act like a nut – she “got upset”. Mom didn’t threaten suicide or think the Mafia was tapping our phones – that subject was simply not brought up. I suspect those with a similar upbringing will know exactly what I’m talking about. I remember one time, towards the end of her life, I had a long talk with Grandma about Mom. I was an adult by then, and had come to some difficult conclusions – mainly that the things Mom said happened didn’t happen, and I had come to accept that the majority of my childhood was based around delusions. Anyway, I started talking about the past – hers specifically and ours as a family – just to get her warmed up and maybe prime her for some answers.


Me: Grandmom…why is Mom the way she is?

She thought a long time before sighing.

Grandma: I don’t know. I don’t know why your Mother is the way she is.

Me: She is crazy, right? It’s not just me.

Nothing from Grandma. She averted her gaze and ran her fingers through her brown hair.

Me: Has she always been like that?

Silence for a while.

Grandma: Family is all you have. Your Mom and Timmy, they’ll be with you for your whole life. You have to hang on to family.

I told her I would.

More silence.

Grandma: Did I ever tell you how your Grandfather and I met?
She had, many times. I asked her to tell me again, though. My point is she knew perfectly well – maybe all too well – that Mom had deeper issues than just having a “temper” or “getting upset”. But you didn’t talk about it, because to talk about it would be to expose your daughter’s nakedness. And you don’t do that, you cover it up.

My Grandmother wasn’t the only one who felt family loyalty should be above all else. I remember being at Uncle Richard’s one time, and seeing a headshot of a girl I recognized in the trashcan by his chair.


Me: Isn’t that Alison?

Uncle Richard gazed down at the garbage can. Alison gazed back up. I had seen her a few times – she had the lesson before me on occasion.

Uncle Richard: Yes. And do you know why it’s in there?

I shook my head.

Uncle Richard: She left her family. You don’t do that. You never do that.
I looked down into the trash. I thought Uncle Richard might be being a bit harsh on Alison, but I got the message. Family is family. It doesn’t matter how fucked up it is.