Monday, April 9, 2007

A Failure of Courage, Part 2

The only real solace I found was in long-distance running, at which I excelled. I discovered this lonely sport in the tenth grade when, at an annual school-wide run around the American school campus in England, I came in second to a high school senior who had won the event four years in a row. I stopped trying out for football as a 140 pound tackle and joined the cross-country and track teams. As a sophomore, I led in first place finishes not only against other American schools in England (where we lived as an Air Force family) and Europe but against English schoolboys, too. I was a Big Man On Campus because of my prowess in moving over the Earth at great speed and for long periods of time. Yet, in spite of my need to train, I was condemned if I didn’t replace the time involved to get our house’s grass tennis court mowed or the garden’s rhubarb chopped and readied for canning.

I continued running as a junior and senior in a 4,000 student high school when we returned to the States. I was County Champion in cross country, ran in the Illinois State Finals in track, as well, and was elected Captain of each team. I set various records in several events. I ran in an 11 mile road race against college and older amateur participants, coming in 7th in a field of several hundred participants but, more importantly, was the first high school boy to finish. This personal victory meant nothing at home, of course, because being in this event prevented my scheduled Saturday leaf raking (it was autumn, after all) and since I didn’t do it, I got the silent treatment for a week.

All the while, my courage to talk back or to challenge their words and behavior toward me tapered off to a simmering resolve that I would get back at them, somehow. I would make them feel bad that they had boxed me in, categorized me as useless and my ideas “…not worth a hill of beans.” I would find a way to make my “rebellious” nature real—obviously, I was rebellious if I couldn’t fit into their dreams for me. I would “…show them a thing or two” (as they used to say to me). I would make them hurt. I would get back at them even if I was doing the suffering. I would make them wonder whatever did they do wrong that I turned out like this.

So, I flunked out of college, for starters.

How does anyone flunk out of the University of Hawaii (UH)? I found lots of ways; the main one being: don’t do anything. Don’t go to class. Don’t hand in any assignments. Blow up organic chemistry labs. I didn’t do that, but the small fires I created or the acid I spilled didn’t sit well with the lab assistants. I did well in things that interested me, like English composition or Public Speaking but, that wasn’t enough to save my academic career. By the fourth year of college, I had so few eligible credits that UH gave up on me and reported my status to the Draft Board, who promptly invited me down for a “Pre-Induction Medical Exam.”

I got out of military service because I had asthma as a child and was treated with the drug “epinephrine” after the age of fifteen. I thought back on my early-age asthma attacks and realized they coincided with my dad being away on one of his many military flying assignments. He left and I got sick. He came back and I got well.

More interestingly, I got well right in the middle of a doctor’s appointment. I associated the doctor with being a “father figure” and was so happy in his presence that I literally healed and stopped wheezing and coughing in his examination room. He was kind and solicitous and interested in my well-being; everything I wanted in a “daddy.” His very presence and touch honored me so much that I returned the favor by curing myself in front of him. He’d often look over to my mother and ask why I was here. She would say I was too sick for school so, that’s why we came by. This healing act didn’t last long, though. As soon as we returned home, I was sick again until my dad flew back.

I remember his being away on a trip and coming home with his usual cavalcade of souvenirs for the family. We were stationed in Germany at the time. My mom told my dad that I failed to be “The Man of The House” while he was gone and didn’t do something that fit the title. He looked at me with his cold, blue eyes and said that because of that I would receive nothing and to go my room. I was just seven years old and devastated that I was being held to adult standards already. The pain was intense. Being left out of the “goodies” was a terrible fate. “What did I do that was so bad that I was being punished so brutally?” He later opened my door and handed me something, telling me to quit crying and “act like a man.” Getting the goods alone and not in the presence of the family felt like being picked last for a dodge-ball game.

Slowly, in spite of the rave reviews some of my teachers and other adults heaped on me and told my parents about, truths emerged. I was insignificant and insensitive to their aspirations. I was thankless for all they’d done for me as “first-born” and upon whom the future of the family name depended as the only son. I was told I had no idea how they’d sacrificed for me. I couldn’t “…imagine what my becoming a doctor meant to the family name.” I didn’t understand that I was destined to be the first doctor in the family since my dad had to leave pre-med in college to “…go fight a war on my behalf” even though he didn’t marry my mom until seven years later and I wasn’t even born for another year after that.

Guilt was the watchword by which I lived. I felt guilty if whatever I was doing felt good or made me happy. If those emotions were present, then I was betraying my parents and their ”love” for me. If I was enjoying myself, I would soon feel their wrath. I had to remind myself constantly that happiness and contentment were for somebody else, not me. As long as I was in their presence, being correct was the guiding principle and if I didn’t know what to do, I “…should know by now; My God, haven’t you been listening?” Guilt heaped itself on me, again.

The little child within me, who only asked to be cared for, loved and nurtured, retreated to a safe place somewhere inside, licking his emotional and mental wounds. He didn’t emerge for a long while and when he did as a man, he was creative, imaginative, artistic, sensitive and joyful if only in short bursts. Even though these times overflowed with positive energy, I couldn’t assuage the feelings of foreboding and guilt that came with them, that somehow I would gain my parent’s diminution simply by doing something well on my own. I remember their taking the credit for whatever I did well. After all, it was their genes or their teachings that gave me the wherewithal for my individual success and achievement.

When I told my dad that I flunked out of college, I almost laughed in his face. I did get back at him. Here was something I did all on my own. I really disappointed him this time. I flunked out so I couldn’t possibly go to medical school now. I couldn’t possibly be the doctor he dreamed of my becoming.

Although I failed in courage to come right out and tell him years before, I had enough courage—albeit a strange application, for sure—to stop trying to be something I didn’t want to be, putting an end to the charade, once and for all. I told him I wanted to be a psychologist and he got back at me, saying they were “…a dime a dozen.” He won again, deflating my hope in doing something at which I did well as exemplified by the “A’s” I earned in those college subjects. That I wrote well and could speak well was backed up by high marks. No matter to him.

For the rest of the time we were a family “unit” in Hawaii, he ignored me except to tell me that since I wasn’t in school and now had a full-time airline job, I was going to have pay rent to help out. We lived in free government housing on Hickam Air Force Base. We shopped at the cheap government food commissary. Even my mom was working. He was a colonel in the Air Force, surely a high-paying job. What did he need with my money?

I decided that since I was going to have to pay rent somewhere, I would at least choose my roommates and I moved out a few weeks before he and my mom were transferred to their retirement home in Florida. So there! A glimmer of courage sparkled although it was dusted over by my leaving home for good. I could never go home again, as has been said. I did miss family life, such as it was. At least the cooking was great.

To this day however, anytime I hear about some group of people being “like a family,” I run the other way. The only family experience I ever had was what I described and no way was I going to repeat that anywhere in my adult life by choice!

And so, I emerged from this family’s cocoon with wonderful memories of things I accomplished outside of their influence (some while they still lived in Hawaii) but, with heavy emotional baggage.

I learned how to sail small boats in record time and went on to be named “Corinthian (Sailor) of the Year” by my yacht club, at 21, for my work developing the club’s youth program and for teaching others how to sail as a paid member of Hickam Harbor. I won two consecutive “Single-Handed Championships,” where I raced a fully rigged 20’ sailboat by myself, winning over men several times my age and with much more experience than me. I won the annual “Dillingham Regatta,” a sailboat race from Waikiki to Kaneohe Bay as the youngest ever in that same 20’ sailboat, “Gay Lady,” with my dad and a good friend as crew. I skippered “Gay Lady” to several islands in races and on leisurely cruises with friends.

My career in the airlines flourished and I married an artist, whose father was in the Navy as a flotilla commander. We moved onto a 22’ sailboat from an apartment, storing much of our goods ashore. It was a sweet life aboard. We could sit in one place and cook, answer the phone, adjust the TV, eat and wash dishes. We had many friends that moved aboard their boats, too, and we sailed as a fleet on almost every Sunday to Waikiki and back.

Life was good but I was bad. I treated my wife the same way my parents treated me. If she angered me I gave her the silent treatment. I put her ideas down if they didn’t agree with mine. I sometimes made fun of her in public. I was rotten and ugly. I felt so guilty whenever I treated her in these ways but, I didn’t know of any other example to follow.

I had wanted out of my family so bad that I proposed marriage before my parents left for the Mainland. I thought she would rescue me from the feelings of inadequacy imbued in me. She was a free thinker, pretty, intelligent, charming and loving. I challenged her with deep thoughts and sexy moves. I thought we were in love enough to marry and we did although my mother insisted we come to Florida to do so. After all, my wife’s mother and father were retired on the East Coast, too, so it made sense.

I was still afraid of my parents, believe it or not, and when my mom complained that my fiancĂ©e arrived on the pre-wedding flight without wearing make up, I went ballistic and confronted her. “How could you fly without make-up? What will people think?”

I write this some 30 years later and still shudder at that last statement, “What will people think?” It has been a thought that hounded me most of my life, up until now. No matter what I did, if it was table manner errors (for which I was often kicked under the table or had my mother’s high heel ground into my foot), a misspoken word or a mismatched pants and shirts, I was always reminded of, “What will people think?”

I was so traumatized by what people might think of me that I began thinking through what I might say or do, rehearsing my behavior, giving up spontaneity for correctness, especially around others. I moved through life as if I was in an airplane cockpit (albeit low to the ground; I’m only 5’7”) and guiding my body-fuselage with available controls over the earth and through my life.

Intimacy was out of the question. To tell anyone what my deepest feelings were risked them thinking I was weird or out of place. Even my two wives never really knew what was beating deep inside me. As long as I could get by commenting on something outside of me like politics or the stupidity of someone else’s actions, I felt safe. I seemed to act spontaneously but I would often review whatever I said or did and wonder how I got away with this or that. Maybe I was louder than anyone else. Maybe I really was original in my words and deeds, saying and doing things no one else thought of. Even as an adult, people seemed to like me and want to be around me. When I got drunk, I was a happy drunk, hilarious to a degree that even years later, others ask me if I remember something I did or said that had them rolling on the floor laughing. I could not remember, of course, perhaps because of being so loaded, though I think something deeper was afoot: hysterical amnesia.

As I grew up I seemed to remember less and less of what went on before. I could remember the pain of living within this family. I could recall the names, the slurs against me uttered by dad and (less often) by my mom. I remembered following one of them around the house trying to get the courage to ask permission to do something like go out with my friends somewhere and needing my allowance advanced. I knew I would get some kind of “no” and yet, I was happy when I did. Maybe I would avoid the turmoil of going out and then dealing with not having done something for which I would be punished. It was almost better to be at home unhappy, than sorry for going out. The good things that did occur, I seemed to forget; unable to recall. While the scientific literature is kind to this condition, saying it usually lasts a few minutes or a few hours, mine has gone on to this day.

Hysterical amnesia usually occurs as a condition of some psychological trauma and is looked on as temporary. It can involve short or long term memory. The two key phrases for me are “psychological trauma” and “temporary.” I’ll admit to the trauma which I’ve described thus far but temporary has me stumped; just how long is temporary?

My sister is the opposite of me in many ways. She is calm while I am excitable. She is thoughtful toward others while I can run roughshod over others feelings. She can remember everything and here I am, hopelessly lost in the land of forget-it-all. My sister can remember if not the full details of any event but, can include the date and what the weather was like. I’m being facetious. Compared to what I can remember about our pasts she is Encyclopedia Britannica and I am a comic strip. I can ask her about our history or more particularly my history and she has the facts and the first and last names of everyone involved. My sister never makes fun of my not remembering, she just answers patiently while I listen, fascinated at her recall.

I asked her a few weeks ago if she and I ever talked with each other about what was going on the family. She said no, we never did. It was like I kept what was happening to me to myself and whatever they did to her was her secret. We often heard, “What happens in this family stays in this family.” We were never to discuss anything on the inside outside the walls of our home. It appears that the two us took that admonishment to mean she and I could not speak about anything inside—inside either.

I’m getting close to the end of my adventure in being down about my past—that which I can remember, of course. Next time on “Brittleliquid’s Journey,” I’ll continue, perhaps with the startling revelations leading to my emotional and actual castration. It won’t be graphic but it will be descriptive.

Until then, peace to you, Gentle Readers.