Monday, January 30, 2012

Memoir Monday: My Unsuspected Line

Sometimes change takes years, and sometimes it happens in a moment, when you cross a line. This is a story about one of those moments and one of those lines. It's not a pleasant story, and it's taken me more than fifteen years to discuss it, but it has a happy ending, although it was a long road to get there.

Back in my early-to-mid-twenties I was both closeted and still refusing the deal with the depression that had haunted me since childhood. Each one was a burden, but the combination of both had sent me spiraling into the deepest depressive episode of my life. I'd lose hours of time, had little interest in any of my normal activities, and stumble through the day feeling dead inside. At first I used food to cope, which left me heavier but no happier. I then hit upon the novel idea of having sex with strangers. Maybe I figured that getting men to go to bed with me was a sign that I was desirable, or maybe I wasn't really thinking at all. In any case, I went to my mission with a will, hooking up with men both everyday and outrageous. That filled up my calendar – among other things – but those encounters just left me feeling empty.

The experiences were too many to relate here without crashing a server or two; I'd put the number of men I took to bed, very conservatively, at 40. One gentleman sticks out in my mind, a really strong-willed guy who did not take no for an answer. Given that I had very little ability to give no for an answer, we were as perfect for each other as Godzilla and Tokyo. The problem was not that he was an incredible jerk – I'd been with any number of those – but that part of sex for him involved hitting. This wasn't S&M; there were no leather chaps and vests and whips, and he didn't want to be called sir or master. This guy just liked dealing out abuse, and he didn't care if his partners enjoyed taking it.

The first time he popped me one I was surprised, but the blow, as hard as it was, didn't knock any sense into me. Instead, I tried gently dissuading him:

" offense, but I'm not exactly into that kind of thing. Maybe we could sort of take it slow and a little less intense, if that's all right."

Translated from Screwed-Up to English, this reads:

"I don't like it when you hit me, but I won't do anything more than gently complain about it. So carry on."

As you've already guessed, he didn't stop dealing out the abuse and I didn't stop taking it. At the time I figured that things could have been worse. I mean, at least I wasn't alone, and he wasn't trying to injure me, right? I didn't feel afraid or angry, but just numb, like I was watching this happen to someone else. I do remember thinking that it was important he didn't hit me in the face; otherwise, I'd have to explain to my brother, with whom I shared an apartment, why I was coming home bruised. At the time that seemed a very rational consideration, and not the amazingly fucked-up, Lifetime-Original-Movie shit that it was.

Later, as I was climbing into my car, I caught sight of myself in the rear-view mirror and froze at a sudden realization: I'd be dead within a year. I knew this the same way that you know the sun rises in the east and that Monday follows Sunday. Looking at my reflection was like staring into my own grave, and it was the only time I ever felt doomed. I'd never been so freaked out, but that sensation was like the moon sailing free of the clouds. I hadn't felt so clear an emotion in years, and it snapped me back to reality long enough for me to crawl to my doctor.

Depressives are often good at presenting normally, but I was surprised – and relieved – to find that my doctor had known since meeting me that, emotionally, I was going nowhere and would be arriving soon. He had the name of a psychologist ready, as if he'd been awaiting this moment, and he urged me to contact her straightaway.

To this day I still wonder why that moment in the car was when my invisible and unsuspected line was crossed, and I still don't know the answer. That kind of mystery doesn't make for a good story, I admit, but at least this story has a happy ending, and in the next entry I'll go into the five words that started my journey towards it.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Memoir Monday: The Kingdom of Confidence

Despite a history of chronic uncertainly and endless self-questioning, I have often tended to rise to positions of leadership. Not because of overwhelming charisma or undimmed optimism, but because I always have a plan. I've twice served as a foreman on a jury, for no better reason than I was good at organizing discussion and keeping things on track. It's amazing how readily people will respond to someone who seems to know what he's doing, even if that someone is a barking idiot. (Washington DC, I am looking in your direction.) I am not a barking idiot, I hope, but in any case I'm often trusted to run whatever needs running.

I never felt quite comfortable with being in charge, though. Not because I didn't enjoy it, but because I always felt as though I wasn't exercising authority in the right way. Should I be tough? Conciliatory? Distant? I didn't know, so I was always on the lookout for the answer.

Back in the 90s I was working at a mid-sized law firm, performing conflict checks, maintaining the case database and running various reports, etc. Not a bad job, if truth be told, and I was pretty good at it; so good, in fact, that I was heavily relied upon by one of the managing attorneys. (We'll call him Matt.) I spent a good portion of each workday in his office, explaining a report or taking as assignment. One day, when I came to his office I found Matt on the phone, and when I made to move off he waved me in and to a chair. The speaker was on so I could follow both sides of the conversation, and it seemed that one of Matt's subordinates was unhappy and taking it out on his boss. I held my tongue but wondered to myself why Matt was taking this kind of crap from an underling.

Matt, however, never broke a sweat. He nodded and um-hmmed while the guy on the phone carped and complained, but by the end of the conversation Matt hadn't lost his temper, raised his voice...or budged one inch. When that phone call ended, the guy on the other end of the line gave Matt exactly what he wanted, while I stood by amazed.

That was when I understood that real authority is not a crown, which sparkles and demands attention from everyone who sees it. It's a normal suit of clothing, which you might pick out with great care when you're dressing, but which you forget about approximately ten minutes after you don it. Everyone else knows you're dressed, of course, but later most would be hard-pressed to say what you'd worn that day. Bad leaders wear a crown because they need to remind others who's in charge; good leaders are confident everyone already knows it. The key word there is confidence. If you know you're in charge, that is often enough for others. Strange, but true.

So now when I'm called upon to run something – a work project, an Ultimate team – I try to think more about the plan and worry less about the rest of it. If people will follow the clueless bozos they send to Washington every two years they'll follow me, and I don't even have to win an election to know it.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Memoir Monday: The Worth of Worry

While I'm "married" to a fairly stable, reliable person, I've always been strangely attracted to those aren't. As I kid I was uncertain, rules-obsessed and constantly worried about what tomorrow might bring, and sure enough, my childhood best friend was brash, disobedient, and acted completely without regard for the future. When I was with him, I got to sample that attitude. I can't say his way was the best guide to living, but it sure felt good in small doses. Worry is hard.

Fast forward twenty-five years and I'm starting out in stand-up comedy. I was doing only so-so, getting some laughs from audiences but not really surprising anyone…including myself. Back then I attended open mics once or twice a week, so I was getting substantial stage time and seeing all sorts of audiences. One Monday morning around 1am saw me at a bar on South Street, pitching to a crowd that had just been treated to a drunken, shouted rendition of "Girl, Get an Abortion Now." (If you hadn't guessed, this was sort-of sung to the tune of "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon." The original was pretty stupid, so you can imagine how bad the filk was.) After that there was a bunch of heckling, and…well went as badly for me as you might expect, and I left the stage and the bar frustrated and depressed.

Anyway, two days later I was at Helium, where I was lucky enough to score a spot in the open mic. (Helium can be very tough in terms of getting stage time, which aspiring comedians should keep in mind.) While in the green room I looked at my set list and thought, "This sucks. I'm angry about what happened to me two days ago and I'm going to bitch about it." Worried Me warned that many of the people at Helium were also in the audience the night in question, but he was quickly shushed by Angry Me, who didn't give a damn. If someone in the audience got pissed that I called out what he did on stage, tough. So I threw away that set list (Worried Me howled in protest) and worked up a 2.2 minute set on the spot. You can see and hear the results here.

I was a hit. Although I was bitching I didn't come off as aggressive – I'm nearly incapable of that – and the audience was not threatened but entertained. And because I had stopped worrying I was able to speak not from my fears but from my passion, and audiences always know the difference. In that moment, I understood exactly why people drive to L.A. and live in their cars for the chance to make it big. My performance was hardly flawless; I said too many "umms" and stepped on the laughter more than once. However, I nearly flew off that stage, and I giggled like a Keebler elf all the way home. (Thanks to Dan for not back-handing me for that.)

That was one of the best moments of my life, and I can remember it far more vividly than any of the times I fretted, equivocated and wore myself to a frazzle over money or a job or whatever. It was a new feeling for me, but one I suspect my childhood friend was acquainted with. I can't say I live like that all the time, but then again I don't eat as much fruit as I should, either. So if I get one serving a day of each, I'm not worried.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Memoir Monday: The Art of the Personal

When I heard that the World Trade Center had been destroyed, I thought first not of the people killed but of the only time I'd ever been atop one of the towers. Maybe that's self-absorbed, but I've always thought it's easier to grasp the personal than the universal. Like art, death makes a connection more quickly and intimately when it's personal. When one person – your aunt, a friend, a friend's friend – dies, sympathy is pretty natural, but when thousands of people die that emotion is much less direct and pointed. And maybe it's arrogant to say so, but I think that's true for everyone.

Anyway, four years before the attacks, I had visited New York with my friend Jack on a crisp, clear, lovely September day, which was eerily like the day the towers fell 24 months later. We had decided to do all the touristy things, and one of those was going to the top of the WTC. We took an elevator up a long, long way, then switched to another elevator which took us the rest. Even inside that windowless moving box, I felt like Daedalus; there were some things human beings were just not intended to do, and one of them was ride a windowless, moving box hundreds of feet above the earth. Even the children on board were hushed.

We stopped first at the top floor, which had telescopes and windows and these little build-outs where you could look all the way down the ribbed side of the tower and get that vertigo that's your body saying "get the hell down from 1300 feet." Then we went up the escalator one more floor to the observation deck. Jack stepped right off the moving stairs into the open air, but it took a long time for me to gather the courage to follow him. Jack was always the bolder one, and when he laughed at my reluctance it didn't sting at all. Even if he found some of my ways funny, Jack never laughed at me.

Quiet. That's the first thing I noticed when I stepped out after him. There's not much peace in Manhattan, but at that height everything except the wind was quiet. There weren't even any birds to break the silence, and the other people on the deck respected that and kept their voices down. There were lots of people up there: tourists with kids and fanny packs, and New York types way too hip for either. I remember these two guys who looked as butch as Vin Diesel, but when they put their arms around each other Jack and I had to run away lest they hear us laughing and toss us over the side. Not that you could really toss anything over; the observation deck stopped well short of the roof edge. To commit suicide by jumping you'd have had to climb a fence and struggle through about fifteen feet of wires and other obstructions. Easier just to shoot yourself at home.

We were up there a good long time, looking over the harbor where the Statue of Liberty looked as small as the souvenir I'd once owned, from a long-ago New York trip. That kitschy little thing had been gold and the real deal was green, though. I always wondered what the US government thought when the French proposed building the thing: "Yeeeaaah…a giant robed lady holding a torch is exactly what New York harbor needs." Or maybe it was a surprise, and Grover Cleveland had to act delighted: "Wonderful! Amazing!" [To an aide: "Just put the damn thing somewhere I can't see it."] He probably burst a blood vessel when he found out they stuck it at the Gateway to America. Millions of immigrants got to wonder why the hell the French didn't just buy something off the registry. Jack laughed when I said that, except at first he thought Grover Cleveland was the muppet from Sesame Street, and not the 22nd (and 24th) President of the United States. He accepted the correction in good humor; Jack never thought it was embarrassing not to know something.

We tore ourselves away from the WTC and kicked around Manhattan the rest of the day, with Jack entertaining me by bursting unexpectedly into the theme song from "Hawaii 5-0." (He wasn't much of singer, but he nailed that one.) By the time we staggered back to Philadelphia we were exhausted but satisfied. I will never forget that day. Maybe that's why, when I heard the news of the destruction of the WTC, I thought first not of the people who died – that came a bit later – but of the time I'd spent there. I remember thinking, "But that means Jack and I will never get to go up there again." It took a long time to get my mind around the fact that about 2600 people would never get to go up there, or anywhere else, again. Too large, too distant.

Some years later, when I was told Jack had died, I had much the same experience, except this notion was just the right size to bullet directly into my brain. I understood straightaway with a dreadful clarity that I wouldn't go anywhere with Jack, ever again. So while I'm sorry that all those people died in September 2001, when I think of the World Trade Center what I remember most is visiting it with Jack. And if you'd been with him on that roof top on a bright September afternoon, you'd feel the same.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Welcome to Memoir Mondays!

So I've decided to write my memoirs and post them, one chapter at a time, every Monday. Right now you are probably asking yourself:

If you aren't famous, why are you writing a memoir? And why should anyone care?

I'm writing for two reasons. First, it's damned enjoyable. Those who claim to write have to actually write stuff, and this is my stuff. Second, I'm not a sharing sort of person, and that isn't always good for me. So I'm sharing.

As to why anyone should reason, really. However, this isn't intended to be just a series of tales about my life. Each chapter will, I hope, focus on what my experiences have taught me about myself and the world, and I hope that others who have learned the same lessons – by whatever means – will relate and enjoy.

The tales you are about to read – assuming you choose to read them – will sometimes be funny or cheerful, and occasionally depressing and dark. Some of the stories are easy to share, and others I tell only with trepidation. At the end you might think better of me, or you might wonder how the hell I function without medication. In either case, you'll know me better. Oh, and these chapters aren't written in any specific order; we'll jump back and forth in my life as the mood strikes me, but I promise that they're written so's you won't get confused

Let's get to it.


Making Trouble

I imagine this will surprise those who know me, but I used to think I was shy. I wasn't really, not inside, but for a number of reasons I was strongly invested in not making a fuss or causing anyone any trouble. At that age I didn't believe that I might be worth some trouble, or that a little fuss can be good for the soul, but...well, there it was.

When I was an undergraduate, I had an American history class that I despised because the teacher took attendance at every class, in the form of a sign-in sheet he'd pass around the room. I told myself I was too shy to object, but I also had a defiant streak and I simply despised being treated like a child, which is how that sign-in sheet struck me. After all, I had paid my tuition; if I skipped class it was my loss and my business, right?

I was complaining about this to a coworker, who advised me simply, "Steal it."

Me: [goggles at her]

Coworker: "When the sign-up sheet comes around, just stick it in a notebook or something, and when class is over walk out with it."

Me: "What will I do if the professor goes up and down the aisles, asking who last had it? The person who handed it to me will point that out, and I'm caught."

Coworker: "If that happens, just say, 'I don't have it.'"

Me: "But...but..."

Coworker: "Look, if you stick to your story, there's nothing he can do. Just keep saying, 'I don't have it', and he'll give up. Don't worry about it."

I was fearful of taking what I considered a big risk, but I had this strong need to somehow assert my independence. The fear and need battled it out for a day or two, until the next class saw me secretly stuffing the sign-in sheet in my textbook. Despite my coworker's advice, of course I did worry about it. In fact, I was so consumed with worry I could barely even understand the lecture. When class was over I nearly sprinted out of that room, and as I did I heard the professor ask, "Who has the sign-in sheet?"

That gave me a start, and a part of me became convinced that: a) the professor would somehow suspect I was behind the disappearance of the sign-in sheet; and b) chase me down for a pat-down to find it. Turning sharply into the Kingdom of Crazy, I ducked into a corner of the busy corridor and pulled the sheet out of my backpack and stuffed it into my shoe, "reasoning" that a pat-down would not extend to my footwear. As I limped away at maximum speed, it suddenly struck me that the crafty schoolteacher, enraged by this theft, might indeed think to search my shoes. That's when I departed the Kingdom of Crazy and veered directly into the People's Republic of Paranoia. I ran into the restroom, shut myself in a stall, and stuffed the sign-in sheet into my underwear. See, I had this clever notion that the professor, fearing accusations of impropriety, would never dare to violate my Fruit-of-the-Looms. Congratulating myself on my canniness, I sat through my next two classes getting paper cuts in unmentionable areas. (Let me tell you that was the only time I ever regretted choosing briefs over boxers.)

Needless to say, the professor did not chase me round the Moons of Nibia, and round the Antares Maelstrom, and through perdition's flames to get back his sign-up sheet. Next class he announced he was going to keep a better eye out and then he went back to his life, which I should have done seconds after I pocketed the thing. I proudly displayed the stolen paper to my coworker, wisely leaving out the underwear-stuffing part. She never asked to hold the paper, which now makes me wonder if she guessed the part I left out.

It took me a long time to realize why I got so nutty about a stupid sign-in sheet, and I now know that it had nothing to do with shyness. I was afraid to have to face that professor and lie through my teeth, because that was crossing the line. I wasn't very good at line-crossing in those days, you see, because that causes a fuss, and that wasn't something I wanted to do. It took me a long time to learn that having needs and taking chances isn't really trouble; it's human. We have needs, and we're allowed to express them, even if we're afraid to do so. Especially if we're afraid.

So now I cross that line. It's a risk, but I've (finally) learned that keeping my head down all of the time is even more dangerous. I could have saved myself some worry – and some paper cuts – if I'd realized that twenty-two years ago. And telling that professor, "I stole that sign-in sheet you lost. Don't make me sign in for a class I already paid for, all right?" would have made a way better story.