Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Back to Reality

Whirlwind week
Well folks, I'm back from vacation and I have to say that I've never had a better time. I'm back at work this morning with a ton of backlog staring at me, so this will be my only blog entry until tonight.

But allow me to say thanks for all the well wishes and comments you all left while I was gone. I was able to check my blog a few times, but not as much as I would have liked. Santa Claus is definitely getting the laptop memo this season.

I wanted to thank Michael for the very complimentary post he made yesterday about our little dinner confab on Friday night. As I indicated in my brief post the following day, I'll be writing more about my impressions of him, probably tomorrow.

And also allow me to congratulate Gooch on the birth of his new bouncing baby boy! His new son is exactly the same birth weight as mine was. Gotta love those babies! Hope all is well with Mother and child, Goochmeister! I was disappointed that he couldn't join Michael and me, but I know that he's a mile high right now with the pride of bringing such a precious creation into the world. And yes Gooch, there will be another opportunity for us to meet. I've decided this was the first in an ongoing series of trips to SoCal that I will be making. More on that later as well.

The story engine will be getting cranked up in earnest within a couple of days. There's lots to talk about, so stay tuned.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Make Mine Italian

Hello all, greetings from sunny SoCal. I'm staying here in Long Beach with an old college buddy, and I've had a phenomenal week so far. Tonight is my high school reunion and I'm sure it will be one of the highlights of what has already been a totally enjoyable trip back to my ol' stompin' grounds.

As most everyone already knows, I had dinner last night with His Honor the Mayor of Blogsville, Michael. We had a fantastic time enjoying Italian food and getting to know each other as we talked about our wonderful little blogging community. I will certainly be writing a lot about our meeting next week, as well as the rest of my vacation experiences here.

I also had an unforgettable two days spent with my Dad, who absolutely loved the blog stories I wrote about him and my Mom(s), which I had printed out and hand-carried to him. He said he was anxious to read more, which makes me very happy indeed. I've decided that I have to make more of an effort to come out and see him. It scares the hell out of me to think that each time I say goodbye, it may be for the last time.

Well I've gotta make this one a shorty. Gotta go grab some lunch with my friend and then start psyching myself up for tonight. Damn. I just realized I left my Botox at home. Oh well...

Seeya guys...

Tuesday, August 24, 2004


You can color me GONE!
Well dudes and dudettes, I'm off to SoCal! I'll miss the 'hood to be sure, but I'll have plenty to talk about when I return next Monday night...

...as a matter of fact, just maybe someone else in our little community might have some things to say about it as well...

But we'll keep that a secret for right now..*hee hee*

You guys be good! Talk atcha in a week.

Create well!


Monday, August 23, 2004


Here are a few illustrations I pulled out of mothballs and scanned to leave you with while I'm in Sunny California. A few people had requested I post some stuff. It's hard to believe that I haven't so much as picked up a paintbrush in nearly fifteen years. However it's something I definitely miss and will certainly get back into someday.

This is for Lovisa.
This was from an assignment in college to depict an animal performing a human activity. The t-shirt was the favorite one I had at the time, since I was a certifiable Dr. Pepper-aholic. I soon graduated to coffee.  Posted by Hello

Pete Rose
Back when he was actually a good guy, and my favorite baseball player. This was one of a series of illustrations that were a part of my senior project.  Posted by Hello

This is for Burner.
It's part of another series of illustrations I did in college, in tribute to some of the great gymnasts I competed against over the years. This is former Olympian, Bart Connor, who interestingly, ended up marrying the immortal Rumanian gymnast, Nadia Comeneci. Umm...the years have not been kind to Nadia, BTW...ZOIKES!  Posted by Hello

From way back in the archives...
Superman, from Dec. 30, 1966, when I was 10 years old.  Posted by Hello

A couple years later...
From 1968, 12 years old and full-on into my "Marvel phase." I'm sure I did a hundred pictures of Spiderman, but unfortunately, this is the only one I still have.  Posted by Hello

A "League" of my own.
Also from 1968, I got bored with the Justice League of America, so I created one of my own. The Challengers was a group of superheroes I created, but never quite developed. The group consisted of the likes of "The Champ," "The Raven," "Diskman," "Energy Man," "Mental Man," "Solarman," and my all-time fave, "Athleto."  Posted by Hello

AJ as "Athleto"
In 1976, my sophomore year in college, I took a Life Drawing class and our final project was to draw a "self-portrait comic strip." Well this was a no-brainer for me. I knew in a hot second what I would portray myself as. I was gonna be my favorite self-creation, Athleto. And it just so happened that I had a brand new pair of ski goggles I was quite fond of, hense my "disguise." I was also a big Addidas tennis shoe fan back then, and their logo was...well...perfect for my purposes. And if you don't catch the "Montreal" reference, the Olympics were held there in 1976.

So one all-nighter and numerous copyright infringements later, my introduction into comic lore was secured. This was as much fun, but also as hard as anything I've ever done, and was horribly rushed. But I was still pretty happy with the results, as was my professor.

This is the opening page. there are two more to follow.  Posted by Hello

"A Mess in Montreal" (Page 2 of 3)  Posted by Hello

"A Mess in Montreal" (3 of 3)  Posted by Hello

"Athleto" pencil studies  Posted by Hello

That's it for now. This may be my last post for a while, but I'll do my best to get to a computer and report in at some point next week from LA LA Land.

Y'all don't burn down the place while I'm away now, ahiiight?

Take care, all...

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Countdown to Californie:
T-Minus 3 days and counting...

Alright, okay...this blog has been oficially been declared a Heavy Emotions-Free Zone for the immediately forseeable future! Thank you all for bearing with me through some fairly heavy-duty stuff with this last few series of stories dealing with my childhood and the lives and deaths of my two Mothers. It felt great to get them off my chest and to have my memories archived for perpetuity and all that, but I am in need of a little vacay in more ways than one.

As I briefly mentioned a few days ago, this coming Tuesday I'm heading back to SoCal for a week of catching up with friends, spending some time with my Pop, and catching some rays. It will all culminate with my 30th high school class reunion, a week from tonight, Saturday Aug. 28th.

I'm also looking forward to getting at least a month's worth of fresh blog story material to write about on my return. This is a trip that I've been looking forward to for months and months. I'm looking forward to spending some time with some old friends and maybe a few newer ones as well.

Say, can I pick anything up for you guys? I'm taking requests...

Friday, August 20, 2004

Word to My Mothers: A Tribute (Epilogue)

They say that “clothes make the man,” but dude…
my MOMs made the clothes!

We human beings are a complex lot, are we not? Our biology is a wonder of complex processes, made even more so sometimes by our lack of understanding of how and why they work.

Likewise, our personalities, which inject what we call “life” into these biological processes, are often hard to understand. If someone behaves unpredictably, differing from the standard norms, we often say they’re complex. Well guess what boys and girls? We’re all complex.

People behave and react to the things presented by their existence in different ways, and not all of those ways make sense on first blush. To the observer, it can be confusing, but that’s what makes life — and people — interesting.

Now pardon me while I wax all allegorical and whatnot.

I look at people as beautiful, complex garments, woven together with strands of richly colored and uniquely different materials. These materials are the experiences, people, environment and spirit of all that surrounds us as we go through life. In the beginning, the garment is chiefly being fashioned by our parents. In most cases, they supply the pattern and begin the process of constructing the most wonderful creation they can imagine. However they aren’t all equally skilled, and sometimes they don’t really put forth their best efforts, although those instances are far more rare than we would like to think. However, flaws do occur. Some are more pronounced, others are well hidden, yet they inevitably exist in every garment made — it’s just part of the nature of things; no garment is perfect.

The flaws are caused by different things, and are not always the fault of the one is performing the construction. There are times in which a seamster has only substandard materials at their disposal. And while it's possible that they may be aware of this and simply don't care, it's just as possible that they're only doing the best they can with what they have to work with.

After a time, we take over from our parents and continue working on the garment ourselves. We too are often guilty of taking shortcuts, not seeking out the best materials, or straying from the sound pattern that was our garment’s basis from the beginning. On the other hand, we may be able to identify flaws and mend or strengthen them to the point that they have no longer detract from our garment’s quality. However sometimes there is little that can be done. But in the end, I believe it is our own responsibility to make the best what we have been given. Our garment can be beautiful, and often already is, regardless of whether or not we appreciate that beauty.

My two Moms worked together, albeit indirectly, to weave a wonderful life for me. My Dad designed the pattern, but Annie and Maxine made it beautiful. I am so thankful for the tribulations as well as the triumphs, because I know who I am — and I also can imagine who I might have been if I had allowed the flaws to dominate and ruin the fabric.

I consider myself incredibly lucky. Most people are fortunate to have a truly great Mom.

I had two.


Thursday, August 19, 2004

Word to My Mothers: A Tribute (Part VI)

Tangled up in Blue: The Eulogy
As the years wore on, and thirteen grew more and more distant in the rearview mirror of my life, things gradually improved between Maxine and me. I learned the drill. I knew what her triggers were and made sure to avoid them at all cost. It wasn’t so much “walking on eggshells” as it was simply “treading lightly.” I got really good at it and prided myself on how far I had progressed in becoming the person who she wanted me to be. I realize that doesn’t exactly sound fair to me, but believe me, it was. I had a lot to learn, and she had a lot to teach. And while her methods were certainly out of step with what we today perceive to be appropriate, I can only look at the results to judge whether they were right or wrong.

I don’t expect anyone to understand why I’ve always cut Maxine so much slack. There are some members of my family who never did, and that’s their decision. This was mine.

I’ve often wondered what it was. Was it the fact that I’d finally done what she once told me I’d never do, and “amounted to something,” or if it was just that she just loved Michelle so much? But after I got married, my relationship with Maxine entered an entirely different stage. She always used to say that there were three qualifications I should have in choosing a potential wife. “If she can cook, sew, and drive, then she’s great catch.” Bingo, bingo, and bingo, Mom.

For the final 21 years of her life, I can honestly say there was never a disparaging word between Maxine and me. She completely approved of my choice for a life partner (and why the hell not?), and several times in the course of mentioning Michelle would wink at me and say, “Ya did good, kid, ya did good.” I reveled in her approval.

By late spring of the year 2000, Maxine had been in and out of the hospital with a series of health issues. Months earlier she had undergone her second knee replacement. Soon thereafter doctors detected a benign tumor that was successfully removed. While recovering from that surgery, she began to experience setbacks. She suffered a staph infection, but appeared to be on the road to overcoming it. She had been carrying a lot of weight for many years, but at nearly 80 years of age she had always been extremely vivacious and healthy. I had spoken to her on the phone during the time she was apparently on the mend, and we had spoken about them possibly coming to visit us that summer, once she got back on her feet.

Michelle’s parents came to spend Memorial Day weekend with us that year. Michelle’s Mom was having some back problems at the time and we had just purchased a new mattress, so we decided to let her parents sleep in our bedroom while we slept in our old bed in the guest room.

At 7:00 AM on Sunday, May 28, 2000, I was awakened by a phone call. Being the rock-hard sleeper that I am, and being in the unfamiliar surroundings of the guest bedroom, it took a few seconds for me to get my bearings. The message on the other end of the line almost convinced me that it was all just a bad dream. Maxine had passed away from complications of a viral infection that had overtaken her during her recovery. It was sudden and unexpected. The thought had crossed my mind that it could happen, but I never thought it would.

I immediately made flight arrangements and joined my Dad and brothers in California the following day, Monday. My younger brother Alex, who had delivered David’s eulogy six years earlier came to me and said, “AJ, Dad asked me if I would give Mom’s eulogy, but I just don’t think I can do it. Could you?” I looked him in the eye and said, “You would have had to fight me for it, pal. I want to do it. I had planned to do it.” He smiled with relief, “Thanks. I know you’ll do a great job.” Alex gave me some notes he’d already written down of the facts of Maxine’s life, which helped tremendously. That night I sat in bed and began to write, pooling all of the emotions that were locked away in my heart — the horrors and the happiness; the pats on the back and the slaps in the face. I sobbed and wrote. I wrote and sobbed. I could feel my chest rise higher with every sentence. This was where I finally let go of it all, and saw the true result of her role in so significantly forging my sensibilities; in making me the person I’ve become.

Everyone in my immediate family knew how harshly Maxine had treated me in the beginning — everyone except my Dad; he’d find out much later. It was better (for me) that way. I’m sure that some of those who knew the truth wondered, years later, what my true feelings were — whether or not I resented her for it. This was my opportunity to proclaim that I had indeed risen above it, once and for all.

On Thursday June 1, 2000, Maxine was laid to rest, in a grave flanked by her late husband, my Uncle Matt, and the plot reserved for my Dad, which in turn is beside the place where my Mother, Annie, is also buried.

In a small chapel called the Church of Our fathers at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Cypress, California, her memorial service was held. The following is the eulogy I delivered to honor her. Again, please understand that I’ve removed and changed the names of those whose privacy I want to respect.

* * * * * * * * * *

Maxine was many things to many people.

To her parents, she became their second eldest child, coming into the world on September 19, 1921 in Piqua, Ohio (which she fondly referred to as "PEE-qwaah").

To her siblings, she was a stable and loving influence.

She was a supportive and loving wife to two different men and served as the glue that bonded these two families into one.

She was "Mom" to her children, Kay, Lee and Janice, as well as to her stepsons, Jack, David, Kenny, AJ and Alex.

She was "Ganna," "Meemaw," and "Grandma" to thirteen grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Growing up in Colorado Springs, Colorado, before he actually had one, she was her Daddy's "little boy," eagerly assisting him in his trade as a plumber during the difficult days of the Great Depression, when work not only meant making ends meet, but survival itself. During that trying time she would gain the tools that served her, as well as those whose lives she touched for the rest of her days.

That service began on Valentine's day, 1941 when she married, a handsome, blue-eyed man named Matt, a co-worker with her at the Guide Lamp plant in Anderson, Indiana. They'd only met three months earlier, but as she would later say, "He was the cutest thing I'd ever seen...and we knew it was right."

And so it was.

Maxine and Matt moved to Long Beach, California in 1948 following the birth of Kay. Lee and Janice followed soon thereafter and life was good. The family thrived on outdoor activities, particularly those camping trips to their beloved King's Canyon National Park.

She and Matt shared active roles as members of the First Baptist Church of Long Beach. It seemed as though she had everything that she had ever wanted. But then Maxine's life took a sharp left turn.

Matt began to show signs of an aggressive strain of Alzheimer's Disease in the early 1960's. At the same time however, back in Anderson, Matt's sister, Annie, just one year her junior, was showing the same effects of that frightening and mysterious disease. Since so little was known about Alzheimer's at that time, both Maxine and Annie's husband, PD struggled to find answers. So they turned to each other for moral support and to compare notes.

The two had been acquaintances during their days at Anderson High School and through their spouse’s family ties. They began to support each other through phone calls, letters and family visits.

Alzheimer's eventually claimed Matt in 1967 and Annie the following year. Maxine and PD's supportive friendship matured into love soon thereafter. They adopted the popular Frank Sinatra tune, "Strangers in the Night" as the theme of their relationship, and were married on May 17, 1969.

At the moment that Maxine said, "I do" for the second time, she simultaneously became a wife, a mother and a grandmother. After raising three children of her own, she was now faced with the task of raising three more, which she did, with the same sense of principle and values with which she was raised.

So strong was her mothering instinct, that following the death of her mother, Maxine sent for her handicapped youngest sister, Nancy Jo, to come and live with her and PD in California, which she did until her death in 1983. During that time, Nancy even referred to Maxine as "Mom."

Maxine and PD's years together were filled with happy times. They were traveling companions on numerous trips to visit family in Indiana and Oregon. Their travels also included an extensive trip to the Holy Land, a Caribbean cruise and trips to Hawaii, where they also celebrated their 20th Wedding Anniversary in 1989.

You know, we had a saying back in the 70's: "Everything's Relative." In other words, whatever is meaningful to one person may not be so to another, and vice-versa. To me (being that everything's relative), that phrase always meant something a little different: "When you find beauty in something, appreciate it...not for what someone says it is, but because of what it is to you."

Maxine was many things to many people. But to me, she was not only my Mom, but also the author of my work ethic, and my sense of duty and principle. She is my conscience, and I am very proud of that fact.

When I strive to go the extra mile to do a job to the best of my ability, it's because that's what she taught me to do, and because that's what she did.

When I try to explain to my teenagers, "It's the PRINCIPLE of the thing!" it's because that's what she taught me, and because it is (darn it!).

And when I sit back and survey the results of an afternoon of "sweat equity" in my yard, at my workbench, or after a home-improvement project, I see her, because she taught me the value of hard work, and because she lived it.

She was strong, confident, irrepressible, and she lived a full and satisfying life. Just who she was may very well depend on whom you ask, but one thing is certain: if there are holes in the floor of Heaven, she's definitely looking down on us — and smiling.

* * * * * * * * * *

Next: They say that “clothes make the man,” but dude…my MOMs made the clothes!

Maxine Addendum

Holes in the Floor of Heaven
Aimee made a humorous comment about that phrase in refference to my mention of it in Maxine's eulogy, and it occurred to me that I had provided no context for those of you who aren't Steve Wariner fans. Actually it was the title of one of Maxine's favorite Country songs. I'd never heard it prior to the day before the funeral, when my stepbrother Lee told me that they were going to play it, which they did immediately following my delivery of her eulogy. I thought it appropriate to make referrence to.

If you're not familiar with the song, here are the lyrics...

Holes in the Floor of Heaven
Words and Music by Billy Kirsch and Steve Wariner

One day, shy and 8 years old
When grandma passed away
I was a broken hearted little boy
Blowing out that birthday cake
How i cried when the sky let go
With a cold lonesome rain
My mom smiled, said "Don't be sad child.
Grandma's watching you today."

Cause there are holes in the floor of Heaven
And her tears are pouring down
That's how you know she's watching
Wishing she could be here now
Sometimes if you're lonely
Just remember she can see
There are holes in the floor of Heaven
And she's watching over you and me

Seasons come and seasons go
Nothing stays the same
I grew up, fell in love
Met a girl who took my name
Year by year we made a life
In this sleepy little town
I thought we'd grow old together
Lord, I sure do miss her now

Cause there's holes in the floor of Heaven
And her tears are pouring down
That's how I know she's watching
Wishing she could be here now
Sometimes when I'm lonely
I just remember she can see
There are holes in the floor of Heaven
And she's watching over you and me

Well my little girl is 23
I walk her down the aisle
It's a shame her Mom can't be here now
To see her lovely smile
They throw the rice, I catch her eye
As the rain starts coming down
She takes my hand says, "Daddy don't be sad
Cause I know Mama's watching now."

There are holes in the floor of Heaven
And her tears are pouring down
That's how I know she's watching
Wishing she could be here now
Sometimes when I'm lonely
I just remember she can see
There are holes in the floor of Heaven
And she's watching over you and me.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Word to My Mothers: A Tribute (Part V)

Growing up and treading lightly
Okay, let’s see…so far in this story we’ve talked about:
a.) My natural Mother dying
b.) My life being on the fast-track to nowhere
c.) My awkward social introduction to Southern California schools
d.) My Stepmom Maxine beating me.

Umm…are we ready to talk about something positive for a change? I mean if I didn’t know better, I would conclude from my own words that I had a terrible, unhappy childhood. However nothing could be further from the truth.

Don’t get me wrong, I would have definitely changed a few things if I were pulling all the strings (whoah…that sounds like a good song lyric doesn’t it?), but I wasn’t, and I still had fun. Although it’s impossible for anyone to be totally objective in interpreting the events and happenings of their own life, I know one thing: I am no tortured soul. I have had more than my share of hardship and sorrow, but at the same time I have enjoyed greater heights than many do as well. Yes I would change a few things, but on balance, I’d take my experience over that of a lot of other “successful” people I’ve known. And many of the reasons that things turned out the way they did was because of Maxine.

Take my schoolwork, for example. That same kid who came within one missed homework assignment from failing the fourth grade, suddenly began pulling all A’s and B’s immediately after we moved to California. Why? Oh, maybe the fact that somebody finally made him do his homework had something to do with it. And while I still struggled with math, my report cards featured only a small handful of C’s for the last five years of my secondary education. The increased self-confidence I enjoyed as a result led to my involvement in student government and intramural sports. By Ninth Grade, while I wouldn’t exactly say I was a “big man on campus” (actually I was still quite small at that point), I was however well known, and I think, pretty well-liked by everyone, including the same people who teased me when I first arrived a year earlier.

And I have Maxine to thank for it.

Although our relationship started out pretty rocky, it gradually got better over time. And from day one, she placed total emphasis on me doing my homework. I wasn’t allowed to do anything after school until it was done. And that’s when the transformation began to happen. It wasn’t that the schoolwork got easier, but rather the simple concept of self-application she forced me to learn that did the trick.

She was also responsible in other more indirect ways to my involvement in things like my church group, in which I made the most wonderful, long-term and fulfilling friendships, many of which remain to this day. She herself, along with my Dad was involved in many church activities at that time, so we had to be there when they were. Soon, I loved being with my friends so much that I was finding any excuse I could to go whenever the doors were open, whether or not my parents were there.

My becoming involved with Gymnastics, I too indirectly credit to Maxine. After a being well-known in junior high, I suddenly was cast again into the sea of anonymity that was high school. Nobody knew who I was and vice-versa. Student government in a place so vast was way too intimidating. However I needed something to do that I could personally hang my hat on. My relationship with Maxine was still pretty unpredictable, and quite frankly, one of the best by-products of all my extra-curricular activities was the time it afforded me away from home. Less time to possibly say the wrong thing or forget to do the right thing, and suffer the inevitable consequences.

So when my regular gym class coach suggested I try out for the gymnastics team after seeing me deal well with the apparatus in P.E. class, it intrigued me. I loved competing in sports, but was always too small to play on organized teams. Up to that point I hadn’t even been aware that Gymnastics was a sport.

A sport in which being diminutive was more an advantage than a hindrance? Now that was a revolutionary concept! And the fact that we had workouts that kept me out of the house until 6:30 every night was the ultimate added bonus.

I can’t say how much, but I also think Gymnastics helped to curb Maxine’s inclination to hit me. I grew four inches from the beginning of 10th grade to the end of the year, which for me was really saying something. I also started putting on muscle — to the point that my Dad innocently, but mercilessly, embarrassed me everywhere we went the following summer, making me roll up my shirt sleeve and, “show ‘em your muscles.” The thought of it still makes me cringe in embarrassment.

However the positive effect, apart from the obvious confidence boost, was that Maxine seemed less inclined to take her aggressions out on me. And since a large part of why I got involved with the sport in the first place was as an excuse to be away from home, yeah, it’s a backhanded compliment. However I still give her the credit in leading me to take that most important path in my life.

But backhanded compliments aside, the good things Maxine gave to me are nearly too numerous to mention in one sitting. Attention to detail is one thing that is an integral part of my personality, because it was a part of hers.

Respect for people, their feelings and their property is something I credit her with developing in me. If you use something that belongs to someone else, it’s disrespectful to do anything but return it in as good or better condition than it was when you borrowed it. This was one of her credos. Her life was highly ordered. She knew where everything belonged and was immediately aware when something was out of place. That level of order is something I will never attain, but is something I constantly strive for.

My work ethic is totally a result of her example and what she demanded from everyone in my family. She was a tireless worker, and you would keep up with her. And though I hated it at the time, it stuck with me, and has served me well.

She was a tightwad. So am I, to a lesser degree. But she definitely taught me to respect the value of a dollar. I’ve raised both of my kids that way and am happy to report that they are amazingly mature in that regard. They appreciate what they have as I do. Maxine taught me to be that way.

My Father taught me to me kind. Maxine taught me to be wary.

My Father taught me to be sensitive. Maxine taught me to look at both sides of an issue.

My Father taught me compassion. Maxine taught me common sense.

My Father led by example, and has always been my hero in the way he has endured, doing what he had to do, always without balk or complaint.

Maxine demanded respect, and got it, because ultimately she backed it up with a tireless work ethic, providing me the elements I needed to be successful in life.

He is my gentle strength.

She is fire in my belly.

He is the contentment in my heart.

She is the anger in my soul.

I never, ever felt I had to prove myself to gain my Dad’s acceptance. I never stopped trying to gain hers, even though I knew I already had it.

Nothing could make me feel any more secure than my Father’s love, but nothing ever made me feel better about myself than that day a little more than a year before she died, when Maxine told me how proud she was of me. From that point on, the beatings had never happened; I had never been thirteen years old; I had never dreaded coming home after school.

Is that healthy? To allow myself to be so manipulated emotionally as to place such importance on someone who some people would say doesn’t deserve so much as a thank you for the way she had abused me?


To not look at the whole picture in any endeavor, now that’s not healthy. Unforgiveness is the poison of the soul. I have dealt with the hurt and have forgiven her. I have chosen to look at the good Maxine did for the whole person that I’ve become, and be thankful.

Full circle.

Next: Tangled up in Blue: The Eulogy

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Word to My Mothers: A Tribute (Part IV)

Reality…What a concept!
Reality can be a fickle thing. It can change so quickly. What was
reality for you one minute can become something quite different the next. Take me for example. One day I was a happy, carefree kid, living in rural Indiana. I didn’t have a whole lot to be concerned about, save the fact that I had no Mother, was failing in school, had my head in the clouds most of the time, and had very little to look forward to beyond a mediocre existence.

I was a happy kid, but I couldn't have cared less about school. If I wasn't drawing pictures at my desk during class, chances are I was pretending that my Bic ballpoint pen was the starship Enterprise on it's way in to dock at the space station, otherwise known as the front opening of my school desk. The teacher might have just as well been up there announcing the end of the world; she still wouldn't have garnered my attention.

That was my reality.

I don’t know if I developed into a dreamer as a natural consequence of biochemistry, heredity, experience, or all three combined. During that period from grades 3–7, I was constantly in hot water with regard to my schoolwork, or lack thereof. I put forth little to no effort, and there wasn’t much anyone could do about it. I never did homework unless someone made me, and that someone was usually my Dad, who, god love him, was already so stressed that he really didn’t need any more trying to deal with me. So Dad assigned my brother Jack to keep an eye on me and make me do my homework, which he did — for about a month. I somehow managed to skate through, although it was some pretty rough sailing in the fourth grade, where I literally came within a single letter grade of failing and being sent back to repeat it the next year.

I hated math. Still do. I enjoyed history. Hated reading. Hated social studies. Hated anything that involved studying or writing papers. Loved singing/glee class (even won a brief part in the 6th grade school musical production singing a song to a girl who was about two feet taller than me). LOVED art class (well, DUH!).

Bottom line is, I needed direction, and fast. Nobody thought I was stupid — quite the opposite in fact — I just didn’t care about school. Had we stayed in Indiana, and I continued on the course I was on, there’s no way I would have ever gone to college. There is no telling how my life would have turned out, or who I would have become.

However a funny thing happened on the way to mediocrity. As Rowan & Martin always liked to refer to it on Laugh-In, the fickle finger of fate decided to point me in a different direction.

My reality changed.

Fate takes a Holiday
When we arrived in California in early September 1969, I remember simply being agog with wonder. There were no open spaces, apart from the beautifully manicured public parks, such, as I had never before seen. Every square inch of land was developed, but that fact lent itself to a different kind of beauty that really appealed to me. I marveled at how much thought, planning and effort it must have taken to produce such a metropolis as the greater Los Angeles area.

Everything was so crisp and clean. People hired Japanese gardeners to manicure their lawns. There were no potholes or gaping cracks in the surface streets and highways, as I had come to understand as the normal condition of such things throughout my life in Indiana. There was order here. I felt secure. I received a strange sense of well being while traveling in a car on the freeway at night. With its visual symphony of streetlights and headlights performing a hypnotic dance before my eyes, that feeling made me long for the day I would finally be behind the wheel myself.

My new life in California began wonderfully. I remember as we pulled up to Maxine’s house in my Dad’s old red Ford Fairlane, thinking how unreal it all seemed. Don’t ever believe anyone who tells you that Southern California weather doesn’t have an effect on your psyche. It was idyllic. I felt completely comfortable, completely at home.

Maxine burst forth from the front door to greet us. She ushered we three boys into the living room where we sat and watched TV while she and Dad excitedly caught up on details of our somewhat arduous cross-country trip from Indiana. Her house was so nice. It was clean and smartly decorated. Maxine was as meticulous a housekeeper as I have ever seen. I would become intimate with that aspect of her sensibilities as the years ensued.

We sat and watched the NBC Major League Baseball Game of the Week (funny…I just remembered that). It was great. My feelings were split between all-out wonder and warm contentment. This was my New World. Little did I know that this particular circumstance would be one of the probably less than a ten instances that I would be invited to sit and watch television in Maxine’s living room over the course of the six years I lived in her home.

Oh yeah, my reality had changed all right.

“Hey…are you a geek?”
A Hoosier hayseed; that was me. Now began the process of planting myself in the fertile Southern California soil and seeing how I’d grow. We arrived on a Saturday and school started the following Monday.

I’ll never forget that very first morning in Homeroom, beginning the 8th grade. I sat at my desk waiting for things to start. I must have really been a sight to see for the local kids. I never imagined myself a hick, but I sure must have looked like one. I was wearing a short sleeve madras print shirt, buttoned all the way up to the collar. The pants were my favorites, a pair of gold bellbottoms (that were about three inches too short) that featured wide blue and red pinstripes. Very mod — and of course, coupled with that madras print shirt, very tacky as well.

To this point I had hardly made eye contact with anyone, let alone strike up a conversation. I was sitting there minding my own business, when I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. I turned to look behind me and there was a rough-looking boy with a wide menacing grin on his face. Then he uttered possibly the most memorable words of my lifetime to that point.

“Hey…are you a geek?” he said, raising giggles from three other girls sitting in adjacent rows who were focused on our exchange.

“A GEEK? What the heck is a GEEK?” I thought, quickly, nervously analyzing the circumstances of my first-ever encounter with a classmate. I didn’t know what a geek was, but I knew immediately that it was something that I didn’t want to be.

“No. No I’m not,” I said matter-of factly, and turned back around, hoping that the boy didn’t smell my fear.

Welcome to SoCal, AJ.

It was a nearly innate response to the stimuli of that first day in school, that I knew right then that I had to fit in or die. I started paying attention to how others dressed, to know what not to do. There would be no more buttoned-up shirt collars for me. Strangely enough, Maxine did a lot to help me with regard to developing a fashion sense. She did a lot to hinder it as well, but that’s another story.

As an interesting side note, that boy and I would become pretty good friends later that year. I soon became aware that unlike home, school was a one of the few places where I could be myself, that is, once I learned the dress code.

The way we are raised usually has everything to do with the way we see the world. Everyone believes that. Everyone acknowledges that. Yet most of the time when someone does something that is perceived as blatantly wrong, we always say that he “should have known better.”

But what if that person was only responding to what they knew as normal. What if they thought that what they were doing was actually the right thing to do? Well I’m here to say that I firmly believe that was the case with Maxine.

She was “her Daddy’s boy,” as she used to proudly proclaim. Her Father, an itinerant Methodist Minister, was also a plumber during his off-church hours. His first three children were girls, and he needed a helper, so Maxine was always eager to offer. She adored her Dad, who we’ll refer to as “Grampa F” (with the “F” standing for his actual name — and not something else — just in case you were wondering). Grampa F. was a grizzled, gruff old man by the time I knew him. I don’t remember ever saying more than “hi” to him ever in my life. He scared the hell out of me. But from what Maxine told of him, he fueled nearly every character flaw she possessed. His temper was legendary, and he fully believed in and practiced the Biblical adage, “If you spare the rod, you’ll spoil the child.” He was also a racial bigot, and so was Maxine. She used the term “nigger” with no apologies — ever. She defended the policy saying, “That’s what my Daddy called ‘em and that’s what they are.” What perplexes me still is the fact that apart from the use of the n-word, she never displayed any kind of animosity toward African-Americans that I could see. Personally, I believe that it was out of respect for her Father that she just refused to admit that he was wrong about something.

However, Grampa F. also taught Maxine to be strong; to be an individual. To stand on her own, and not be dependent on anyone but herself. “I can do anything a man can do,” she would often say. She was a tough cookie, brought up in hard times by a hard man. It has taken me a lot of tears to fully appreciate what her worldview was, and how it shaped her thinking and sensibilities. Therefore, this is where I take a decided stand on behalf of Maxine. This is also where I admittedly border on codependent behavior in defending her.

If you’ve read my previous blog stories about her, you already know; and if you haven’t, chances are you’ve already guessed it. Maxine physically abused me for nearly four of the six years that I lived under her roof. Most of it occurred without my Dad’s knowledge, under fear of even more reprisals if I ever told. I do not, nor have I ever thought that she had a right to hit me, my brothers, or her own children, who received just as healthy a ration of her wrath, as I did. That being said, I also do not think she was a bad person. I believe she was responding to learned behavior, borne of a time when corporal punishment was acknowledged as necessary and acceptable among the societal norms of parenting.

In attempting to diffuse my horrific experience, I like to make light of her method as “rapidly beating me about the head and shoulders.” She hit me in a way similar to a boxer punching a speedball. The difference was she never closed her hands. Rapid slapping; from the face to the shoulders to the top of the head was her usual modus operandi. It took a few times for me to learn to duck and cover, but that usually only meant that the punishment would last a few seconds longer. She was extremely quick and had a hair-trigger temper. Most of the time if she landed her first blow, normally a firm open hand across the mouth, she would go no further. I don’t know how she did it, but she never left a mark.

My brother TK, who would fly the coop the summer after we arrived because of he couldn’t get along with Maxine, told me years later something that I honestly don’t remember. He told me that I used to just stand there, let her haul off and slap me across the face without even flinching. He said it amazed him how and why I did it.

Me too.

”I’m sorry, we just don’t do that around here.”
Why did she do it? What was it that made Maxine fly off the handle at the turn of a single word? That’s hard to say, and my comments in that regard are made with admitted speculation. Was she selfish? Most definitely. Did she wish we kids weren’t “part of the deal?” To a lesser degree, I believe that was the case, but I’ll never believe that she didn’t love us, although “love” wasn’t a word that she threw around much. To me, in the beginning it seemed that we were an inconvenience; almost an annoyance. She hadn’t raised us. We didn’t know anything of her ways, which were always the right ways. She seemed frustrated that we didn’t get it. I really don’t want to make excuses for how she treated me, but on balance I do believe I understand it.

Here’s an example of one of the first incidents in which I experienced Maxine’s wrath. I think it is typical of her thought process and the frustration she felt in trying to indoctrinate us into her world. And, it was the only time I ever tried to apologize for doing nothing wrong.

It was sometime within the first several weeks of our arrival, I was in the living room watching TV (for probably the second of those ten times…). I was sitting in a chair, which was beside an end table.

Now I have to stop here and make a confession: I have a nail fetish. I’ve had it all my life. Not the kinds you hammer into wood, but rather the kind that grow on your fingers and toes. It used to be really bad. I don’t bite my fingernails — that’s just plain gross. Nope, I peel them. But I’m a neat person, right? So instead of dropping them on the floor, I would always considerately place them in a neat little pile somewhere within reach to dispose of them when I was done. I thought nothing weird of my little compulsion. However I did have one problem — sometimes I would forget to dispose of my nail piles.

You guessed it.

“AJ!!!!” I heard the shriek from my room a half-hour after I’d left my spot in the living room. I came in reluctantly to meet Maxine's glare, as she pointed to the tiny mound of shredded fingernails piled neatly on the edge of the end table.

“What is THIS?” she demanded. Foolishly, I stepped closer.
“I was just pickin’ my nails,” I assured her. “I do that all the time.”

She flew at me in a windmill barrage of forearms and hands before I could react.

“Don’t you EVER do this again! Don’t you know that this is the type of thing you only do in the privacy of your own bathroom?”
“Uh…no? I whimpered.
“Get out of my sight!”

I went back to my room, shaking, and still trying to figure out what I’d done wrong. I sat devastated for 30 minutes. I felt terrible that I’d let her down. It was my fault. I should have remembered to pick up that pile. How could I have been so stupid?

I summoned up the courage to get up and walk back to the living room, where Maxine was busy looking at a pattern for a garment she was preparing to sew.

“Mom?” I said cautiously as I stood at the doorway, my lower lip quivering.
“Yes Honey,” she said as if nothing had ever happened.
“I’m sorry!” I burst into tears as I ran to throw my arms around her neck. She looked surprised, but gladly received my limp, pitiful little body.
“I’m so sorry I messed up,” I sobbed on her shoulder.

She replied with the pet phrase of hers that I would soon grow to hate. “Oh, it’s okay AJ, but you’ve just gotta know that we just don’t do those kind of things around here.”

Yeah. That and about a hundred other blunders I should have known I wasn’t supposed to do that I would learn about in the next two and a half years.

Next: Growing up and treading lightly

Monday, August 16, 2004

Word to My Mothers: A Tribute (Part III)

It’s impossible for me to completely control who reads this blog. It is admittedly and quite purposefully an open letter of my life to the world. As I’ve said on numerous past occasions, although I do not use my real name, or the actual names of any of the living family or friends I feature in my stories, I certainly have no illusion of any true anonymity here in Blogland. I have given more than enough information about the events and people in my life, that any gumshoe with half a nut could figure out who I really am.

That being said, I do wish to protect the identity of those I write about with respect to their privacy. I attempt to be honest about the people in my stories, and not hurtful or overly critical to anyone. However…and there is a point, in being honest, that it becomes necessary to abstain from pulling punches. I have at times been co-dependent in my support of Maxine and the tactics she used in dealing with me growing up. Perhaps I still am. I'm sure there is at least one other person who will read this that will be able to definitively recognize if that is the case. Yet I will be truthful here.

This story is quite possibly the most difficult one of my life to tell, because it is so rife with mixed emotions. It is the story of the one who has done more to shape my attitudes, my convictions as well as my demons, than anyone in my life — even my beloved and adored Father.

It’s about Maxine, my Stepmom.

And no, Maxine isn’t her real name, but anyone who knew her and reads this will recognize her instantly. Those of you who fall into this category are the ones I want to address right now. If you are out there. If you know who I am, and who she was. If you are a part of my family or hers, be prepared for some brutality, as well as some brutal honesty.

I have no intention of besmirching the memory of the only woman who was truly “Mom” to me. I have no intention of besmirching the memory of her Father, upon whose whose trodden ground she worshipped, but whom also was responsible for the vast majority of her character flaws. Be prepared to hear me speak of the influence he had on me through her.

I love Maxine. Her memory is as important as nearly anything in my life. The opportunity I had to celebrate her in delivering the eulogy at her funeral is as great an honor as I could ever hope to attain.

Yet she was not perfect. And it took a long time for me to reconcile the good she did for me with the emotional scars she left. But reconcile them I have, by the grace of God. This is a story that celebrates Maxine, but not without showing her warts along the way. I ask for your indulgence in considering the whole story, regardless of whether or not the facts ring true to your own experience of her public persona.

Thanks in advance.

Aunt Mom and Stepmom; the voice inside my head; mentor and (tor)mentor; vocal detractor and silent supporter. She was and is all of these things.

Maxine, formerly “Aunt Maxine” became my new Mom on May 17, 1969 when she and my Dad officially blended the families of two victims of familial Alzheimer’s disease. My Uncle and my natural Mother were a year apart in age and also a year apart in the onset and progression of the disease that devastated our two families. Dad and Maxine, already lifelong high school acquaintances before they became in-laws, naturally drew near to each other to compare notes and lend each other support through nearly a decade of confusion, frustration and fear.

When my Uncle began showing the signs of memory loss and disorientation associated with the early stages of Alzheimer’s, it was passed off as the result of stress, as was the case with my Mother’s behavior. Since they lived half a continent away from the rest of the family in Southern California, Maxine dealt with the situation alone. She didn’t seek the counsel of her husband’s family, in part because of her own self-reliant personality and upbringing, but also because of the coolness which had always existed between her and the Indiana contingent. She had always considered herself an outsider, and well she was. For when the news finally reached the family in Indiana, while the story on the surface was one of compassion and support, the whispers circulating in the Church parking lot on Sunday afternoons were quite different. The general consensus was that she was driving my Uncle crazy.

In like manner, my Dad began hearing the murmurs of the family when they began to notice that the normally meticulous housekeeping habits of my Mom suddenly began to deteriorate. Piles of dirty laundry were found stowed in a bedroom. Dirty dishes from the night before sat unattended in the kitchen sink. Surely it was my Dad’s fault. My Uncle Paul, commenting in the Family history book he compiled admitted that he himself had voiced the opinion at the time that my Dad should spend a little less time on the golf course and a lot more time at home, helping Annie with the housework. After all, with five young boys to clean up after, it was a wonder she hadn’t broken down long before this. My Dad, certainly even more concerned about Annie than his critics, capitulated, and began to help as much as he could, but her condition continued to degrade. Her forgetfulness worsened, causing her to fail in various commitments to church and community activities. My Dad didn’t know what to do.

It didn’t take long for Dad and Maxine to get wind of each other’s situation, and to see the similarities between them. They began to write each other weekly, comparing experiences. Long-distance phone calls then ensued. My Dad bought a small reel-to-reel tape recorder and began to occasionally send “audio letters” to Maxine. As their sympathies for one another deepened, so did their supportive attachment to each other. By the time it was actually known what had befallen their respective spouses, the two were already so emotionally bonded that empathy blossomed into love.

As Uncle Paul wrote, “No one was surprised, and, I believe, everyone was very happy that they decided to join their two families to try and salvage what happiness they could from a decade of pain and sadness.”

“It'll soon shake your windows, and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’”

When my Dad and Maxine announced to us that they were getting married, I can honestly say I don’t remember feeling anything. I was completely indifferent. After they tied the knot, I was excited about the news that we were going to be moving to Southern California. What Hoosier hayseed kid wouldn’t want to live there? I never gave a second thought to what I was leaving, or what might have been. Those thoughts were still years away from creating a wrinkle in my young, innocent brain.

I sometimes now look back in amazement at the dispassionate way I responded to some of the events of my childhood. For years, I’ve been aware that I somehow just took it all in stride, as if that’s how things were supposed to be. Unlike my older brothers, I can’t remember ever feeling angry or bitter. In fact the only time I can remember crying about my Mom at all was at her funeral — and I really let it all out then. But soon thereafter I was back to being happy-go-lucky, ol’ AJ. I guess I just never knew to act any differently. I never really knew who my Mom was, and what I would miss, not having her, as a normal, whole person, in my life whlie I was growing up. Things just were the way they were.

My young life was an open journal, just waiting to be written. I couldn’t have imagined the changes that were soon headed my way.

A portend of things to come
I suppose if I hadn’t been so dense, I would have seen what I was in for. A few months after they were married, Maxine came back to Indiana for a week-long “get to know ya” session with the kids. Actually what appeared to be her mission was to “break us in” and give us a taste of how our lives were going to change. After the smiles and the “Hi Mom” hugs were over, Maxine slipped into something a little more comfortable — for her anyway.

She saw a filthy, unkempt house that even the hard-working Mrs. Williams had been forced to bail on. Goldie Williams was a kind, matronly housekeeper who my Dad had hired to help keep us fed and our clothes washed during the last couple years of my Mom’s life, while my Dad was putting in an exorbitant number of hours at work to pay for the her institutionalization. But now her services would no longer needed, as we began, only months out, the job of preparing the house to be sold and to get ready for the move to California.

The gloves came off — and so did the mask. My new Mom revealed her dual role as my new taskmaster.

Now don’t get me wrong — it wasn’t as if we didn’t need the tutoring on the mystery that was housework. We were complete novices to this strange concept. Although I have to say that I proudly held claim to the self-appointed title of “official” vacuum-cleaner operator in the household. We had a new, purple, Hoover upright that I loved to run all over our “modern” wall-to-wall carpeted Middletown home. It was “my thing,” vacuuming. However when it came to housework, it was my only “thing.” Sometimes several weeks would elapse between the clearing of the piles of clothes and toys, which covered those carpeted floors, in order to allow me to display my mad vacuuming skills. I never once before had cleaned the bathroom, swept the porch, washed a window, or dusted a piece of furniture. I was a one-trick pony, yessir, and proud of it.

But I would soon learn that my one trick wasn’t gonna cut it with Maxine. As I would learn months later, she was almost completely a different person when Dad wasn't around. When it was only we younger three boys: TK, LBro and myself, she took a decidedly heavier hand with us. At first I just passed it off as a freak mood on her part. Years later I learned that there really was nothing that unusual about this side of her. It was behavior that had been honed over the entire course of her life.

Maxine was part of a generation, the likes of which we may never see again in this country. Tom Brokaw paid tribute to my parent’s generation in his 1998 book The Greatest Generation. He noted that this particular group of people, in the span of fifteen years, endured both the Great Depression and World War II, forging within themselves a sense of destiny and moral conviction about what was right and what was wrong in their world, that it changed the entire world.

Members of my generation would later take exception to our parent’s “my way or the highway” attitudes, but in all reality, our parents built the highway.

This was Maxine’s creed. Her way, or no way. It was how she had been raised. There was no negotiation; no give-and-take. The first taste I got of that was during aforementioned visit she made in the summer of 1969, after she and Dad had gotten married in California.

The first morning she was there, as I said, the mask came off. My Dad left for work and I prepared to go out and play. Maxine announced that we were gonna “clean up this pig sty.”

I shrugged and said, “Okay, I’ll go clean my room.” Maxine glared at me and hissed, “Don’t you tell me what you’re gonna do!”

I froze in fear. I will never forget that feeling as long as I live. I thought, “What did I say wrong? Why is she looking at me like that?”

She paused and then ordered, “Go clean the bathroom.” I slinked away and did as I was told. I don’t remember much else about what happened that day, but one thing I’m sure of is that I didn’t take much stock in what happened in that incident. I didn’t begin dreading the thought of Maxine being my new Mom. I’m sure I just figured she was in a bad mood for some reason and passed it off as one of those things.

How wrong could I have been.

Next: Reality…What a concept!

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Busy Weekend

Too busy to blog
Well they say that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry...Hmmm...but now that I think of it, I really don't know who "they" are. Oh well. What it means is that too often what we plan to do doesn't jive with what actually ends up happening. I knew this was going to be a busy weekend, and it has been both busy and beautiful. The bottom line is, I've had little to no chance to sit down and write.

I've been desperately trying to get ready for my upcoming six-day getaway to SoCal for my 30th High School Reunion at the end of the month. Yeah, I said three-oh. I can't believe it either. Anyway, I'll be six days of fun and catching up with friends and taking my Dad to an Angels game. I can't wait! However these last two weeks are gonna be hell...HELL I tellya.

Yesterday I went into the office for six hours and next week it'll probably be at least 12. Oh well that's what I get for being indispensable.

Now we've got a lunch and bowling engagement to go to that I also forgot about. Michelle and I are getting together with two other people I work with and their spouses. It'll be fun, that is if I can keep from embarrassing myself too badly on the lanes. I'm the world's worse excuse for a male bowler. No biggie. My self-image is secure. Somehow when you really suck at something, and you know you suck at it, it makes the inevitability of it all a little easier to swallow.

Hopefully I'll be able to get back into my blog series tonight.

Later all...

I am happy to say that the margaritas were tasty and I did indeed have a good time. At least I beat my wife.

In bowling.

I...I suck.

But I'm a real good sport... :)

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Back in the saddle

I discovered something. It's damn hard to write every day. It's much easier to burn out, which is what I came close to doing last week. However with plenty of work in my job to occupy me (and truth be told, that's probably what half my problem was), I've spent a little time getting some balance back in my life, and feel pretty good for the first time in several weeks. Hopefully I won't allow it to get that bad again, but I think most of us can say we're still adjusting to the blogging lifestyle experience. It's not always easy to get a true read on how far you've waded into the water until you start to feel the undertow.

At any rate, tomorrow (actually I suppose I should say, "today," Saturday) I'll be getting back into the conclusion of my Word to My Mothers series. Thanks again for all of the nice comments. And to those of you who participated in my little tell-all quiz, I've really enjoyed reading the responses. And oh yeah, in case you didn't see through my ploy, I'll tell you now, I'm gonna be using those answers you gave in a future post about the personalities of people I've known and grew up with. You guys provided an excellent cross-section that has stuck a chord with me on a number of levels. I'm not sure exactly what I'll do with them, but don't surprised if you see your words in a future entry in this space.

Aww what the hell...
I reluctantly went ahead and took the OKCupid.com personality quiz that Fleece (ever the trend-setter) started early in the week. I was reluctant only in that I was concerned that it appeared to be (and in fact is) almost completely geared and intended for single people, and I didn't want to give the impression that I am anything but happily married, which I certainly am. However I was pleasantly surprised at just how accurate the assessment seems to be, so I decided to post it.

The Slow DancerDeliberate Gentle Love Dreamer (DGLDm)
Steady, reliable, and cradling her tenderly. Take a deep breath, and let it out real easy...you are The Slow Dancer.

Your focus is love, not sex, and for your age, you have average experience. But you're a great, thoughtful guy, and your love life improves every year. There's also a powerful elimination process working in your favor: most Playboy types get stuck raising unwanted kids before you even begin settling down. The women left over will be hot and yours. Your ideal woman is someone intimate, intelligent, and very supportive.

While you're not exactly the life of the party, you do thrive in small groups of smart people. Your circle of friends is extra tight and it's HIGHLY likely they're just like you. You appreciate symmetry in relationships.

Your exact opposite: The Hornivore/Random Brutal Sex Master

ALWAYS AVOID: The Battleaxe
CONSIDER: The Maid of Honor or The Sonnet

So I guess these profile tests aren't all a crock afterall...

And, oh yeah...
Another Fleece project from a few weeks ago that I never got around to posting — that self-portrate Avitar-thingy that everyone was doing. Sorry...I couldn't get the mouth right...I had to cheat. So sue me. *LOL*

I am such a sheep...

Have a great weekend all!

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Man Overboard!

Emotional Overload
Yeah, I did it again. What started out as something I really wanted to do — and still is, became a little too much yesterday.

The fury of emotion summoned up in writing about my Mother for two straight days, kind of nailed me to the wall yesterday. Combined with the news of my Uncle John's death, I was a complete mess. I had to shut it down, rather than continue on with the series, which now turns to the subject of my Stepmom, Maxine. At this point, I really have no idea how hard that one will be to write, and I will write it — just not today. I need to turn off the emotions for a couple days at least and give myself time to recover just a bit.

And if you're asking yourself why I devote so much of my blog to subjects that always seem to lay waste to me emotionally, well, y'know that's really a pretty good question. I would have to say the number one reason would be that I started this blog to be just what it is — a place for me to record and relive my memories. I don't know whether or not someone stumbling upon this blog might think my stories melodramatic or even narcissistic, the way I write about my life, but I really don't care. This blog is all about me. I am an emotional person and I make no apologies for it.

However, that being said, I also acknowledge that I too can be my own worst enemy when it comes to allowing myself to feel too much at one time. Such was the case yesterday, and I've decided to take a step back for a few days.

In the meantime...
There are a few minor upgrades that I've been wanting to make to my blog. There are also a couple of utility programs that a few of my friends here in Blogland use that I've been interested in looking into. So I'll be spending the next couple evenings doing that instead of writing. Another thing I've wanted to do now for some time is to create a separate web page that will be an all-inclusive story index to make it easier to navigate my archives. Blogger.com's default archive linking method quite frankly sucks in my opinion. So I'm going to create one of my own.

A little som’som for my friends, yo...
You may have noticed that I've updated my "Faves" link section, which many people generically refer to as a "blogroll" after the blog utility which automates the somewhat awkward task of managing HTML hyperlinks in your template. Personally I enjoy what little opportunity I get to tweak HTML code, so I prefer to do it myself. Besides, I don't like the large and in my opinion, obtrusive “Powered by BlogRolling” link that comes along with it. But that's just me.

However I have decided to shamelessly steal an idea that a few others have employed in their Blogroll, in which they set descriptions of their blog links as ALT or Title tags (that's the geekspeak terminology for the yellow boxes that pop up when your mouse cursor hovers over a link). So if your site is listed here, check out my little message to each of you. Some are serious, some are facetious. They were all written to bring a smile to your face. I hope you like 'em.

But for now...
At the behest of someone who knows me well, and whose opinion I trust, I've decided to just do something light today that hopefully everyone will want to participate in.

Ever the one to whom I look for fun ideas to steal, our favorite bleating-heart blogger, Fleece, recently posted her results from an online personal poll that quite a few others in turn answered and placed on their blogs. I'd like to do something somewhat similar, except I'm going to ask you to choose to answer and talk about one of five questions, the subject of which you hopefully have never discussed on your own blog. You obviously can make yourself anonymous if you'd like, but I'd encourage you to give us a chance to get to know you better.

Give as much info as you care to in answer to one of the following questions:

1.) Talk about your popularity in high school, and the effect it has had on your life in the years since.

2.) What's the one thing you did as a kid, that you never told your parents about?

3.) Whose voice do you hear in your head most often besides your own? Do you listen to it, or ignore it?

4.) Complete this sentence: “In high school I was pretty much considered ‘most likely to [blank].’” How close has it come to being true?

5.) Lay your all-time favorite joke on us — dirty, clean, or in-between!

You can answer as many questions as you'd like (obviously). I know that some of these questions are a bit personal, but hey...just pretend you're me for a little while...

I'm going to leave this up for awhile. I hope a lot of people participate.

I'll be back in the saddle here with the next installment of my “Mom” series in a couple of days. Thanks again to everyone for your tremendous support yesterday. Your comments were embarrassingly generous.

Ciao for now.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Annie Addendum

Family Update
I just wanted to shortly mention for the record, that my Mom's great and proud family has lost another member.

I got a call late last night from my brother Jack in Indiana. It was to inform me that my Mom's eldest brother, my Uncle Johnny passed away over the weekend. He had suffered a fall in his garage several days prior, and died of complications this past Saturday. He was the eldest male in the family of twelve children. He was just shy of his 89th birthday. Apparently he was growing more and more frail, so given the circumstances, his death, while unfortunate, was no surprise.

But something else Jack said last night, caught me completely off-guard.

"Well," he said, "That means there are only two left."
"What? You're kidding!" I exclaimed as the reality began to sink in.

Of the twelve siblings, now only one Aunt and one Uncle remain. This was an elderly group, so I shouldn't be shocked, but I can't seem to help myself from being just that. I've spent the past week engorged in the memories, and reading of the exploits of my Mother, Aunts and Uncles, and in my mind's eye, these folks are all 30 years younger. They're still old, but not that old.

I felt so ashamed to have grown so out of touch with my Mom's family that I didn't even realize that Aunt Lee, my Mom's directly younger sister had passed a few years ago. Lee was the one whom I quoted in this last post about my Mom, who wrote an incredibly transparent account in the family history book, who I knew the best and liked the least of all my Aunts. She was the one who lived down the street from us in Middletown. Her son was my best-friend Cousin E. I knew she had a stroke a few years ago, but I really don't think I knew that she had died. And that both angers and saddens me.

But the part of this mortality wake-up call that hit me the hardest, was the realization that Uncle Paul was gone too. He's the one who wrote and compiled the family history book. Now as I search my memory I believe I may recall hearing that he had passed away a few years ago, but I had completely forgotten. I just can't believe that I could be so callously indifferent as to have forgotten that my favorite Uncle had died.

Yes, Paul, if any of my Mom's brothers, was my favorite Uncle. His eldest son, Steve was also one of my closest cousin-friends when we were growing up. Uncle Paul, or "Prilly" as everyone called him was an industrial draftsman, and an excellent illustrator. I always felt a kinship to him as being the only other person in my family who had artistic ability similar to my own, although I only dreamed of being as good as he.

He used to call me "Dwimmy" for such a reason I never knew. He was a goofball. A practical joker. A fast-talking flash of movement. He was the father of three boys. He was an avowed atheist who sang in the Baptist Church choir his entire life. He was obviously a hard man to figure out. I never tried to.

The saddest thing of all is the fact that after writing this story about my Mom, and all the time I've spent reading and studying the family history book, I actually thought about calling Uncle Paul to thank him again for the wonderful job he did on it.

God I feel stupid.

I've heard it said that you never really realize you're getting old until all your friends and relatives start dying off.

I feel pretty fucking old right about now...

Word to My Mothers: A Tribute (Part II)

Annie’s Legacy
As I thought about how to properly close this tribute to my Mother, I wanted to dwell on what I feel her legacy actually was, both to me as her son and to everyone else who knew her so much better than I.

It wasn’t hard to determine that probably the single most significant thing she ever did, apart from bearing five sons and being a wonderful wife to my Dad for nearly 23 years, was a single speech that she delivered the day she graduated from Anderson High School.

She was the keynote speaker for the Anderson Class of 1937. And her speech, entitled, “Should We Pity Our Grandchildren” was so profound and prophetic, that the Anderson Herald newspaper re-printed a transcript of it 41 years later, on June 2, 1978, with the following Editor’s Note:
The late Anne (…) delivered an address at the 1937 Anderson High School Commencement program that brought a hush over the crowd for the insight and clear thinking of a high school senior. By reading her address and reflecting on the events of the 41 years since its delivery, we believe our readers will benefit from it.

As you read it, please keep in mind that this speech predates WWII, the Atom bomb or nuclear weapons, mass commercial air travel, television and computers. I think you’ll agree my Mother was both incredibly profound in her assertions and accurate in her predictions about life in the next millennium.

The Anderson High School Senior Keynote Address of 1937
A magazine of national circulation not long ago published an account of an American aviator who flew from New York City to Logan, Utah, in eight hours. Fifty years ago this man’s grandfather had made the same journey by prairie schooner and it took him eight months.

From eight months to eight hours is characteristic of the increase of the tempo of our lives as well as the efficiency of its mechanical contrivances in the short span of half a century.

Who would dare to guess what the next 50 years holds for us? How would you like to live in a glass house? Or have your food served to you by mechanical robots? Or swallow a hearty meal condensed into one pellet? Today we may laugh at such fantasies; tomorrow they may be realities, even commonplace.

Therefore the question arises, should we pity our grandchildren? Physically it appears that our grandchildren won’t need our pity. They will have further mastered nature through science. To them, recreation will be a fine art.

They will not fear the minor operations on the human body that today cause so many deaths. They will know how to live better, how to eat to preserve their health; they may even master those dreaded foes of mankind — tuberculosis and cancer. In a word, on the physical and recreational side, we see a picture of life for our grandchildren more same, more wholesome, and more enjoyable than we, in the present generation know.

Certainly our grandchildren are by no means to be pitied for any lack of the comforts, conveniences and luxuries of life. Our scientists have furnished for each of them the magic lamp of Aladdin, which far surpasses the dreams of the Arabian Nights.

When the steam engine was first invented, a member of the British Parliament said that someday a man might be able to eat his breakfast in Harrisburg, Pa., and his supper in the city of Philadelphia. Very recently men have traveled in comfort and reasonable security from Germany to New Jersey in 81 hours.

In a few years our grandchildren will be able to go to China with the same ease and comfort and perhaps the same time it takes us to go to Chicago.

However if our grandchild doesn’t like to travel, he won’t have to do so. Even though he lives in a hut in the wilderness he can bring the world to his door as he tunes in the great voices and magnificent music to pass away his time. No doubt he’ll be able to touch a button and see a picture of his friend on the other side of the world.

For physical welfare, conveniences, travel, for luxury as yet undreamed of, our grandchildren will accept these things as commonplace; therefore we may congratulate rather than pity those who are to take our places in the world of tomorrow.

So far the negative seems to have had the better of this question. Is there a case for the affirmative; Is there something wrong in this scientific and social and industrial Paradise?

Let us consider war — the greatest menace to collective living that overshadows mankind. International disorder brought about by war is the most disastrous of all types of social and moral disorganization. During the World War of recent painful memory, 15 million of our young men were killed. What is to be the outlook of our grandchildren if they cannot solve this problem any better than we, their elders have done.

The next war will be a war of machinery and chemicals. Because the means of defense have not kept up with the ghastly powers of destruction, we have practically eliminated such a thing as defensive warfare. The only defense in the next war will be a quick offensive, probably without any declaration of war at all.

Is there no better hope than that each nation should load its suffering people with unbearable taxes, should have every plant a unit of military production, every businessman a potential soldier, every able-bodied preacher trained to step from pulpit to camp, with the first roll of the drum? Then, God Pity Our Grandchildren!

And what about accidents? This modern generation couldn’t do without the automobiles, trains, buses and other vehicles we now have, but let’s take a look at the death rate.

From the National Safety Council publication, we find that an American is killed every six minutes! The total deaths for 1935 alone were 36,100, and the total for the last 14 years from 1922 through 1935 was 379,182. We shall certainly have to pity our grandchildren if this death rate isn’t curbed.

Then crime? How will our grandchildren and their children deal with this complex problem that is demoralizing our nation? We as American citizens are becoming more and more concerned about this problem.

Many writers of “popular” articles on crime have accused us, justly or unjustly, of being the most criminal of all nations. We can’t question the fact that crime is costing us hundreds of millions of dollars each year and the cost, rather than decreasing, is increasing at an alarming rate.

In addition to war, accidents and crime, our grandchildren will have to face the great problems of unemployment and poverty. About 25 percent of our people live in poverty, and of the 25 percent, from three to five percent are paupers.

Estimates of unemployment run from 3.5 million to 7 million. This great problem is the cause of a great deal of our crime, our suicides, our heartaches, and our discontent. If we don’t do something about poverty and unemployment, what can we expect of our grandchildren?

Now since we are aware of some of the problems that will confront our grandchildren, we should make it our goal to get at the bottom of this social maladjustment. In order to find the solution, perhaps we should place greater emphasis on social progress. If man doesn’t learn to control these great material inventions more effectively the very civilization he has created could be destroyed. If this happens, then God Pity Our Grandchildren!

* * * * *

There's no telling how many people remembered and were inspired by that speech, both when it was originally given and years later when it was reprinted in the paper. So that is most certainly a part of her legacy.

Annie was, in the words of her younger sister, Lee, “so full of life, so vibrant, so fun-loving — nothing held her back.”

As I mentioned before, Annie was extensively involved throughout her youth in theater, as both an actor and director of plays in high school, her church and in community productions.

“Annie was a superb director. She demanded perfection and got it. She never put on a bad play.” Aunt Lee went on to tell of one play my Mom was directing in which the lead came down with the measles the night before the opening performance. Annie decided to play the part herself. Lee stayed up until 4AM feeding her lines, and that night she performed them flawlessly.

“Annie could memorize her lines with absolutely no effort…I have never in my life seen such a mastery of concentration.”

She was a “beautiful dancer,” had numerous boyfriends but didn’t marry until she was 26, which back in those days was rapidly approaching “old maid” territory. I guess she was just waiting for the right man to come along.

And he did.

My Dad and Mom got married following Dad’s return from WWII on December 16, 1945. They were four months shy of of their 23rd wedding anniversary when she died in 1968.

The young woman in the Senior Class photo, who lit up the stage, and the life of everyone she touched? That was my Mom, a woman whom I never knew, yet feel so close to now as I write these words.

It’s a little strange, to study one’s own Mother as some kind of historical figure. I knew her, but I didn’t know her. I touched her, but I never felt her. I’ve learned from her, but I never had the opportunity to be taught by her.

Her legacy I believe is one of love, vitality and optimism, which she left to me and my brothers to be sure, but moreover, to everyone who received the smile or kind word that were her constant trademark during the functional years of her life.

So thanks Mom.

I’ll seeya in Heaven.

We’re gonna have a lot to talk about...

Next: Maxine

Monday, August 09, 2004

Word to My Mothers: A Tribute (Part I)

The soul of my soul
This is Annie, my natural Mother. She died of complications from Alzheimer's disease on August 22, 1968. This is not a picture of how she looked when she left this world; it’s her high school Senior picture from 1937. This is the image I choose to think of when I imagine her now. It’s an image I never came close to knowing while she was alive.

I’m somewhat pleased that the scan of the photo turned out as good as it did. The image is from a family history book that my uncle put together. It's just a Xeroxed reproduction, as are all the hundreds of photos in that book that he painstakingly compiled as a chronicle of my Grandparent's arrival in this country at the turn of the century, and to detail the lives and families of their children.

When my uncle created the first edition in 1981, distributed then only to that first generation, there was no such thing as instant publishing and even desktop word processing was still in its infancy. The entire book was created as individual, double-sided pages, Xerox-duplicated and then professionally bound. I applaud him for the great job he did in putting the two hundred-plus page book together, given the technology and budget restraints he was under.

But I sure wish I had a print of this photo.

It's one of the photos I mentioned in a previous story about my brother David, having seen in the NOVA episode on Alzheimer’s disease featuring my family which aired in 1991. I had recently watched the VHS tape of the PBS program while writing about David. In one scene, my Mom's graduation picture was shown scattered amongst several other photos across a table at which two of my uncles (including the one who created the book) sat, relating their memories of my Grandfather, who was the carrier of the familial Alzheimer's disease that plagues my family. My heart jumped as I recognized it, partially obscured by the other photos of my Grandfather, Uncle and Aunt, who, along with David, were all the subject of a fifteen-minute segment of this program on genetic diseases as part of their Biology Series.

Prior to when I received my copy of the family history book on its second printing in 1991, I may have seen my Mom’s senior portrait before, but not more than once or twice. At any rate, it wasn't an image of her with which I was familiar. Upon first turning to the chapter dedicated to her, I well remember the chills that ran down my spine as I saw that lovely young face, whose eyes, nose and cheekbones so resembled my own that I literally gasped in amazement. The eyes in the picture, so focused and sure, weren’t the eyes that I remembered as a youngster. Those eyes frightened me. Those eyes were themselves frightened, bearing the marked frustration of one whose memories were in the process of being plucked from her mind, as if by some supernatural force, which she could do nothing to resist.

Life with Annie was a very confusing thing for an eight year-old, which is the age I was when I first asked my Dad, "What's wrong with Mom?" soon after we moved to Middletown in late 1964. His answer, in which he simplistically attempted to explain the effects of Alzheimer's as the doctors had explained it to him, was as fitting to her demeanor as it was accurate to the pathology of the disease. Choking back tears, he said simply, "Honey, her brain isn't getting enough air."

From a biological standpoint that was exactly true, as the predominant pathological feature of Alzheimer's are the network of "senile plaques" which form, enveloping the brain cells of its victims, essentially suffocating them and causing them to atrophy and die.

But even beyond the accuracy of the biological analogy, was its accuracy in my Mother's behavior: the sense of near panic I remember so well that she bore as she struggled to remember things. She often looked as if she was literally suffocating in her own skin. She became easily agitated, and would sometimes bolt out of the house inexplicably and begin walking down the street, sometimes to my Aunt's house down the block, but just as often, in the opposite direction. In those situations, it was I who did the panicking. I would follow her, pleading through my tears for her to come back into the house, but she would refuse and tell me to get away and leave her alone. The only one she would allow to walk with her was my younger brother (Lbro), who couldn't have possibly known what was going on with her at only four years of age. However he always seemed to comfort her and made sure that she stayed in the neighborhood and came home safely after a time.

That is the memory that causes me the greatest pain. I felt so confused and helpless. Soon I found myself becoming fearful and avoiding her as much as I could.

But the one episode that probably sent me over the edge was also a pretty funny one in retrospect. It happened near to the time that my Dad had to institutionalize her when I was nine years old. I was in the garage with my next-oldest brother (TK) and a bunch of neighborhood kids. At that time we had a pool table that we absolutely loved, and which we constantly occupied ourselves with. This day was no different. It was early in the day, probably before noon, either on a Saturday or during the summer. I was waiting my turn for a game when the door that lead from the kitchen into the garage slowly opened. My Mom, her hair all in bobby pins, peeked her head around the door and called for me to come. She needed my help.

As I approached the single step that led up to the doorway, she withdrew behind the door, opening it just wide enough to let me into the house. At first I didn't notice anything weird except that her hair wasn't made up. She was wearing a light yellow-colored button-up blouse. Then as she turned to me after closing the door, it hit me at exactly the same time I heard her say, "Honey, could you help me...I...don't know how to do this..." She was fingering the buttons of the blouse, and couldn't figure out how to make them work.

And she didn't have another single stitch of clothing on!

No bra, no underwear, no pants or skirt — only an unbuttoned blouse. You wanna talk about panic? My eyes must have spun around like whirligigs as I felt the temperature of my ears reach nuclear meltdown proportions.

I think I said something like, "Mom...wait. I don't think I can do that either. Let me get TK to help you." I turned to open the door and screamed for my brother to get in there fast. TK came immediately, and I left in the same way. I remember running away into our big living room and crawling up into a ball on the couch, horrified at what I'd just witnessed.

This unfortunately was the Annie I knew. This was her state of mind during the earliest point in my life in which I could have been able to have an intelligent conversation with her. But that was never meant to be. Instead, all I have are the flashes of memories from between ages three and five, in which I see Mom doing housework; feeding me those wonderful poached eggs she used to make; laughing and smiling while she talked on the phone in the kitchen.

She had a big, deep aluminum washtub that she used for extra-dirty clothes or hand-washables. I remember it seemed so huge to me. It was square and stood on four long legs with castors on the bottom. She would fill it up from a hose attached to the kitchen faucet, add her soap and hand wash the clothes. I remember being so amazed at her superhuman strength when she would lift the tub up to empty out the water into the sink when she was finished.

I remember one time, exclaiming, "Boy, Mommy, you're strong!" She smiled at me and flexed her well-toned right arm, making a muscle for me, as I stood in wide-eyed amazement.

I remember how she would occasionally sunbathe on the patio in the back yard, in her sleek black one-piece swimsuit, with either slices of cucumber or shiny copper pennies over her eyes to protect them from the bright sun.

I remember having nightmares and getting up to get into bed with her and Dad. I remember how she held me tightly next to her. She smelled so good.

I remember one day coming home from Kindergarten, the school bus let me off at the corner directly across the street from our house. My Mom was waiting on the front porch steps for me, smiling. As the bus pulled away, I ran excitedly to greet her, but tripped as I entered the street. At the exact same time a big black Buick sedan was turning the corner, heading up our street. He didn't see me until it was almost too late. As I momentarily lay prone on the pavement, I heard my Mother let out a blood-curdling scream as the front tires of the Buick let out one of their own. I looked up to see a huge whitewall about two feet from my head. I scrambled to my feet and ran as fast as I could into her waiting arms. She held me, rocking back and forth for what seemed like an eternity; both of us shedding tears of fear and relief.

These are the moments I remember. These are the moments I won't allow myself to forget, which I carry with me always.

I wish there were more.

But despite the fact that there weren’t, I feel her presence in my life. I still feel the gentle touch of her hand on the back of my neck when I’m alone with my thoughts of her. I sometimes feel as if she’s the better angel of my nature; the one who keeps me mindful of the principles that she believed in and that I’ve always tried my best to follow.

The soul of my soul.

Next: Annie’s Legacy