Posts Tagged ‘God’

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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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?

 

Ah, hairspray. And hair gel. And hair products in general, really. These were a daily part of my existence. My hair had to be perfect – Mom was always fussing with it. All the other actors in my age group were well coiffed – quite a few had the miserable existence (like myself) of being Helmet Heads. Helmet Head is what I called it when Mom sprayed way too much hairspray (CFCs be damned) and/or used so much gel that my hair wasn’t going anywhere. Literally not one strand out of place. I felt like it gave my hair a stiff, artificial look – under no circumstances would it have blown in the wind (which was kind of the point – the hair-do wouldn’t get messed up). Thus, I called it Helmet Head. It kind of felt like a helmet too. Back in the day, there was a huge emphasis on the actors looking “perfect” – you had to have great teeth, great hands, great hair. Ideally, blonde haired and thin. Look at commercials from the 80’s and 90’s and you’ll see what I mean. Anyway, I wasn’t particularly thin, but I had perfect hair damn it. Mom would fuss and worry about my appearance. Some of this was stage mother stuff – lots of kids in the business had that experience. Sort of a helicopter mom who quasi-worshiped her son and obsessed over everything. The hair was such a big deal to her for whatever reason, though. She even insisted I get a perm at one point (a horrible experience at a cheap cut and blow place). Every once in a while, she’d just start picking on something else, though.

Mom: Let me see your teeth.

I showed her.

Mom: They’re horrible. They’re so crooked!

I couldn’t argue, but I had seen worse – regardless, I didn’t think they warranted that kind of reaction. She acted as if she had never seen my teeth before in her life.

Mom: Let me see again.

I showed her again.

Mom: They’re so yellow…come closer.

After a while I got tired of holding my mouth open for her to peer in – I wasn’t at the dentists, for God’s sake – and shut my mouth. Cue a never ending parade of retainers, cleanings, and dental visits. They’re still not straight, by the way – a little better, I guess, but by no means the perfect, bleached white teeth Mom fervently sought.

Sometimes she’d just be looking over at me and blurt something out.

Mom: God, you’re getting really fat Danny.

I was surprised because this came out of nowhere.

Me: What?

Mom: Look at your gut.

I looked at my gut. I was kind of getting a pot belly, I guess.

Mom: You’re not going to book if you’re fat. You have to lose weight.

She decided on a whim to enroll us all in a weight management program. I don’t remember which one it was – I think it may have been Weight Watchers. The first day, she got into an argument with the lady leading the group.

Weight Counselor: So portion control is a foundation to weight loss. You can’t just have a big plate of spaghetti. You need to limit your intake.

Mom became alarmed.

Mom: Well, what do you mean that I can’t have a big plate?

Weight Counselor: You need to measure your portions. Like maybe an amount the size of a baseball.

Mom: A baseball?

Weight Counselor: Yes, that would be about the most you should eat in one sitting.

Mom: That’s not enough to live on! That’s hardly anything.

Weight Counselor: Well, you can have a salad, or add vegetables.

Mom: Salad?! I don’t like salad. And why would you even have vegetables with spaghetti. That’s stupid.

The counselor argued valiantly – offered up nutrition facts and figures – but Mom was getting more and more steamed. Finally she stormed out of there, muttering about baseballs and vegetables. We tried Nutri-System, but she hated the food (I didn’t think it was so hot either). Thinking we could use exercise, she enrolled us in karate classes. We went to one class before she got into a heated argument with one of the instructors.

Mom: I thought the uniforms were free.

Instructor: It’s a free uniform or a week of free classes.

Mom: Well, why do they even need uniforms?

Instructor: It’s required, it’s part of the training.

Mom: That’s silly. He can just wear sweatpants and a t-shirt. The uniforms are expensive.

Instructor: Well, if you take the free classes you have to buy the uniforms. Or you could just pay the enrollment fee and get free uniforms.

Mom: This is a racket. You people are thieves!

She stormed out, and we never went back. Kind of a shame, really…I sort of liked it.

It wasn’t long before we were back into old habits – her weak efforts at getting us to eat right and be active gave way to piles of spaghetti and drive thru dinners. I don’t think I did this consciously, but watching her erratic behavior made me more cautious and steady. I hate risk. I hate not knowing. I hate abandoning things. I crave consistency at all costs – sometimes to my detriment. Change is a part of life, but it makes me incredibly nervous. Change calls to mind my mother bouncing madly from obsession to obsession, never accomplishing anything of value.

We flew by the seat of our pants a lot. Sometimes I’d forget a script at home, and we’d have to get it faxed to a rest stop en route to the audition. Sometimes we wouldn’t get a script that we were supposed to have gotten, and I’d walk into an audition cold. One time, we got a last minute call to audition for Les Mis on Broadway. I had auditioned when I was much younger, but the casting person took one look at me and turned me away.

Casting Lady: He can’t play a street urchin. He looks too intellectual.

I couldn’t argue. Mom was kind of pissed, though. Anyway, this audition happened to be for Tim. Since it was last minute, we had forgotten the sheet music he was going to audition with at home. He didn’t even really want to audition. He whined about it, but in the end Mom twisted his arm. He weighed the pros and cons of protesting versus being temporarily put out for a 5 minute audition. He chose the latter. I should point out that Tim was a regular kid by every standard – he went out and played in the dirt (something I never, ever did – I was never dirty). He caught frogs. He was loud. He jumped and ran up and down hallways when he took a notion to. He literally ran into the audition and jumped up and down and fidgeted during his interview. Somehow, they thought this was funny and he got the role. I’m not saying he wasn’t good – he was a great singer and actor, too. But the role required lots of energy and Tim had it in abundance.

Several days later, after it was confirmed that he indeed got the role, it became clear we’d have to move to New York. I likely don’t have to tell you this, but rent is insane in the city. Mom actually debated running back home daily between the shows. It seemed like a no-brainer to me, but she actually sat down and did a cost analysis. Turned out it was cheaper to rent an apartment than schlep back and forth every day for 4 hours round trip.

Mom: I guess we’re moving to New York, guys.

And we did – but not without first packing copious amounts of hair gel.

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 feel old. I feel tired – not physically tired, but just weary and heavy. I’ve felt that way since I was a kid, and no surprise. I was always cleaning up my Mother’s messes – putting out the fires when she inevitably pissed someone off, or convincing people she was just having a “bad day” when in fact she was out of her mind, or making sure she didn’t do anything to hurt herself. Several times as a kid, she threatened suicide. I’m not sure how serious she actually was – supposedly people who are serious don’t talk about it (I found this out later, and have some doubts about veracity of this view). I do count her trying to order a Mafia hit on herself as a suicide attempt, even though it had zero chance of actually working (she was delusional, and Russ was not involved in the Mafia regardless). Another time, shortly after we returned to regular lessons with Russ (and we were there like clockwork – if there was a blizzard and I had two legs stuck in a bear trap, we would have made it there) Mom started crying on the way home. She related a conversation with Russ that did not occur – I told her I heard none of this, and she insisted it happened while I was in the bathroom. I took her word for it, but I had my doubts (knowing what I know today, I’m sure the conversation in question didn’t happen). Whatever the content of their discussion – and I don’t remember specifics – it was something to the effect of that Gaffe was never coming back, the Mafia wasn’t interested in backing her/us and her/we had failed their “tests”. I became very concerned that I had done something wrong.

Me: Mom, what did I do wrong?

Mom: I don’t know. I don’t even know what I did wrong.

Me: Can we fix it?

Mom: I don’t think we can. I think the best thing I can do is just…go away.

Me: …go away? What do you mean?

She pulled over to the shoulder of the road. We were traveling on a huge, high-speed, 6 lane highway.

Mom: Take your brother and get out of the car.

Me: WHAT? Why?

Mom: Just do what I say.

Me: I’m not doing that.

Mom: Do what I say.

Me: Why do we need to get out of the car?

Mom: I’m going to drive into an embankment. Don’t worry, I’ll make it look like an accident.

Me: WHAT!? WHY!?

I was crying, Tim was crying, and Mom was crying. It took a long time – over an hour, maybe – but I managed to talk her down. I have no idea what I said – maybe I told her it could all be worked out, maybe I convinced her that her killing herself would mean failing a “test”, maybe I told her we needed her. Either way, after she got control of herself she pulled carefully back on the highway and we made our way home.

Another time – and I’m sure for a similar, delusional reason – Mom went on a full on rant. I have never seen an adult act like a child before, but my Mother was actually acting younger than me. She stomped up and down screaming “FUCK! I’M SO FUCKING TIRED OF THIS FUCKING SHIT!” – if she had a bright red face and steam coming out of her ears, she would have looked like the cartoon depiction of anger. She kicked stuff. She threw stuff. She did everything but lay on the floor and kick her feet. The outburst came out of nowhere, and soon she was not only raging but crying as well. Finally, she announced her intention:

Mom: I’M GOING UPSTAIRS TO KILL MYSELF!

My Grandma and I were sitting in the den, looking at each other. We weren’t sure what to do. She and I both went upstairs to her room, only to find the door locked. We could hear a gun being loaded, and my heart stopped. She had gotten ahold of my Grandfather’s old hunting rifle. I had no doubts that it would work – he kept everything in pristine, beautiful condition. He even oiled the wood on the stock. Grandma and I both screamed at her, but we were pretty much helpless – neither one of us had the strength to bust open the door. Even if we did, she had a loaded rifle. What the hell were we supposed to do? We convinced her to not kill herself, somehow, though she didn’t come out of the room for hours. I set up camp in the hall, waiting for any sign. After a long silence, she spoke:

Mom: I’m not going to kill myself. You can go downstairs.

I immediately thought it was a trap. She just wanted me to go downstairs so she could kill herself in peace.

Me: No. I’m staying here until you come out and put the gun back in the closet.

Mom: But I’m not going to do anything!

She was whining, and I took this as a good sign – it wasn’t rage and it wasn’t sobbing hysterically. She was calming down. I tried to talk to her more, but she wouldn’t talk back. I waited longer. Finally, the door opened and she emerged without the rifle. The standoff exhausted me – it still does.

I became the responsible adult – making sure she paid her bills, reminding her where she parked her car, reminding her about appointments, remembering her purse and valuables for her. At first, I did this only occasionally – it became more and more apparent, however, that she needed help. Forgetting her purse or wallet or credit cards or cash was a weekly occurrence. She’d frequently “lose” money from her purse – not have as much as she thought she had, and insist it was stolen or lost. Locking herself out of the car (sometimes with it running) happened regularly – sometimes several times a month, even with my intervention. Whenever we exited the car or went somewhere, I would begin my litany:

Do you have your keys? Do you have your cash and cards? Do you have your purse? Did you lock the car door? Are all the windows up?

Sometimes I would forget, resulting in an ordeal where a tow truck would need to be called to break into the car. Or sometimes we’d have to run all over God‘s creation looking for her purse or valuables. Eventually, I started making the business calls myself – talking to my agent personally to take auditions. She would only talk to them when there was a problem (which I tried to make sure there wasn’t – my job was to prevent blowups as well, when I could help it).

I did all of this – somehow – while maintaining not only a career but my own composure. And of course I had to watch myself – a wrong move would bring the Mafia down on the whole family. I remember once, we were at a Bob’s Big Boy. I had ordered a strawberry pie for desert, and Mom had ordered coffee. I noticed the man sitting in the booth behind us looked a bit like Russ. Thinking my observational skills would please her, I mentioned this.

Me: Hey Mom…that guy over there kinda looks like Russ.

The blood drained from her face and she yelled for the check. She leaned in close to me and whispered.

Mom: You just got him killed.

She grabbed my elbow and rushed me out of the restaurant – I’m not even sure my sneakers touched the floor.

Like I said. I was responsible for a lot.

 

I had also gotten involved with an acting coach during my time on the variety show, and thank God I met this man. When I was still very little, I decided to adopt him as my uncle. Aside from my grandmother, he was a source of stability in my otherwise chaotic life. I still remember the first time I met him – I walked into his studio and found him sitting in an overstuffed chair. He kinda looked like Paul Newman, but with voice that rumbled with depth. I always thought he sounded a little like a lion. He was one of the few people in my life who talked to me as an equal, even though I was just a kid. It was one of the great lessons I learned from Uncle Richard – nobody is any better or worse than you. Treat them all equally.

He was also one of the few people (one of only three, actually) that Mom had any respect for. If she was flipping out, he could bring her back down into some semblance of normalcy. Usually. But this wasn’t even the main reason I’m grateful to have met him. He gave me a gateway to escape my difficult home life by instilling in me a love of books. He was probably the most voracious reader I have ever met – he was usually reading two or three at once, and had a studio whose walls seemed to be made from books. At his insistence, I read classics and discussed them with him at length. By 8, I had read the entire works of Shakespeare (and had memorized quite a bit). As a gift, he gave me an Illustrated Edition of Shakespeare, which I still have. I took on his habits and became a voracious reader – I don’t think I was ever without a book in my hand. I read at the table over dinner, I read in the car, I read before lessons with Russ, I read in the waiting rooms of casting offices. I learned, and my world expanded – it was an important aspect of my future. But more immediately, it provided a buffer from the insanity. If Mom said she saw or heard something nuts, I could be off the hook by (truthfully) saying I was reading at the time and didn’t know anything about it. If I didn’t feel like hashing and re-hashing her wild theories about people dressing up like Russ (which was often), I could stick my nose in a book. I used to (and still do) spend hours in a book store. When I used to walk in as kid, I could almost feel myself exhale. I took my time selecting something – the larger the book, the better. I got to the point where I could plow through a 1,200 page novel in a week.

Uncle Richard also taught me comedy – this ended up being another one of my ways to deflect Mom. If I could make her laugh when she was bawling her eyes out, or get her mind off of some obsession, great. He was actually a comedian himself – a rising star in Vaudeville during prohibition. He would do 3 shows a night sometimes, and make sure the material was new every time. Someone suggested to him that he should just recycle his material from previous shows – after all, the crowds were totally different. “Not totally,” Uncle Richard said, pointing at the theater staff.

He was a boxer, a painter, a poet, and a playwright. I don’t think there was anything this man didn’t do. I once asked him how on earth he ended up in the Philly suburbs instead of making movies or having his own TV show. He stroked his mustache and his blue-grey eyes peered at me thoughtfully.

“I used to have an alcohol problem.” He left it at that, but I later learned that he had a child with Downs – something he felt his drinking was responsible for. I guess considering medical science at the time, it was a plausible enough thought. Anyway, he ended up quitting to take care of her rather than have her institutionalized (something all too common at the time).

Mom confided in him about Russ, eventually – she would usually send me out of the studio for these lengthy (and no doubt completely loony) discussions. As I got older, I was allowed a bit more access and got to see Uncle Richard’s reactions to her. He would sit on his overstuffed chair, arms folded, and listen carefully to everything – no matter how obviously delusional. I don’t know how he managed it, but he would often always say something wise and insightful.

“You don’t need Russ to be happy.”

“Sometimes, if you’re too close to something it’s difficult to see the whole picture.”

“Why don’t you take a break from Russ? See how you feel in a couple months.”

Mom would consider these things, but ultimately her obsession was too strong – she just couldn’t walk away from something that enveloped her so thoroughly.