My own, or selected others.
“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their children than the unlived life of the parent.” – Carl Jung
I grew up with a depressed alcoholic Father. I’d sit watching TV beside him in the evenings as he knocked back a steady line up of scotch/rocks and smoked his Kents. I loved my Father though his misery seemed way too much like the family business I was expected to eventually shoulder. My Dad seemed like a frightened, tired fugitive who’d joined the family by pretending to belong here; reading the paper nonchalantly until the coast was clear. This turned out to be close to the truth.
I discovered something surprising about him while reading through a stack of his old poetry.
Pretend you’re me. Five years after your distinctly heterosexual and masculine father dies.
Here’s my new story, delivered to me at that hour and minute. My Dad was Gay and living in permanent exile from his own life. Or he was Bi, in the closet, and living an untrue life. Or maybe there is something I’m missing. I’m building a story out of fragments connected by gaps of unknown size and shape. Being Gay or Bi mid-twentieth century is sufficient reason for a rhetorical person hiding, but insufficient for me to understand my father. Who was he hiding from? His family? He held them in contempt or at a cold distance. Society? The law? I have a sort of theory. I’ll get there eventually.
I’m uncomfortable revealing his most private secret to you, one that he never wanted to reveal to me. A secret he may not have revealed to anyone after his early twenties. I’m reluctant to expose his story out of concern for his feelings, his pride, and his shame. But none of these exist now, except in me on his behalf. OK, I can’t hurt him with this story. I’m the only one morally responsible and there’s no victim to protect.
Maybe I’m naive but I was shocked at first because he was so gruff and masculine, it played hard against type. However, it did resolve my lifetime question: Why the hell is this guy so uncomfortable? It made him a more sympathetic character to me. He stifled his most basic feelings and lived in that prison. He nursed a broken heart for a lost love grown perfect in separation. Many of us do, but a happy life keeps that pot on low heat, on a back burner. His pot boiled away till it charred. Pay too much attention to ghosts and they own you. Continue reading
The madman stepped out of the shadows three feet away and smiled broadly.
Under the harsh yellow streetlight, his blonde hair was white, the angles of his face gaunt. His eyes glinted with light from another world. It was my best friend John, or at least John’s body with a schizophrenic parody of him in residence. The scary thing about John as a schizophrenic wasn’t what he was doing right now, it was knowing he might do anything, that prediction was impossible.
“Hello, initiate,” he said, flipping a coin and snatching it from midair. “Heads,” he said, holding his palm open to me with a penny, tail side up.
I fought back my fight or flight response and focused on some here-and-now questions.
“When did you get out of the hospital?” I asked him.
He whispered, “The temple was never completed” and ran off into the night.
At this early stage of madness, he was eerily himself, handsome, self-possessed, and affable. Months later he wandered up to me ragged and filthy, with broken teeth. His personality faded in and out like a badly tuned radio. After a moment of lucidness, he would cackle and dance clownishly away, his rags flying. It was quietly nightmarish to see a friend’s face with someone else’s eyes in place of his. Same house, different tenant. Continue reading
In college, (in Florida) during Freshman orientation I met Ally. We had nothing in common except for an instant liking for each other. Something about the other brought out the loving and playful side of us both. We had silly, warm-hearted fun every time we got together, and that was a lot. I was friends with her and her roommate, Laura, and spent time with them almost every day. Ally was tall, slim, and blonde, a bit angelic. Laura was pale with black hair and blue eyes, beautiful really.
Randomness made them roommates but they had good friend chemistry and shared the cultural reality of being good girls from the conservative, Christian south. They were both sheltered, innocent, and upright. They dressed modestly. Whereas I was some sort of oddball from the liberal agnostic dimension with a good bit of sex and drugs in my experience bank. I was a shameless male slut and good at getting into sexual situations. In fact, by this age, I had managed to be kind of a shallow manipulative asshole sexually multiple times. This isn’t ugly bragging at all, just truthtelling. Here’s the odd thing, attracted as I was to both Ally and Laura, I just loved them innocently and couldn’t have MADE myself seduce either of them. I understood half-consciously that that part of me wasn’t good for people. Spontaneously, I wanted to be good for both of them.
This doesn’t mean we were prim and distant. I’d visit and I’d talk all kinds of silly crap that made them laugh, then maybe they’d make us tea and we’d eat oranges together. Soon this would devolve into orange peel wars and finally into grunting and groaning wrestling matches across every surface in the dorm room but the ceiling. Continue reading
Years ago in my early 20s, I enrolled in a massage school in the San Francisco Bay area to get my license. There was an academic side of studying anatomy and physiology, and a practical side of learning new techniques and alternating massages with the other students for several hours each time we met. At the end of the course, we had to pass the anatomy/ physiology exam and give a practical demonstration of our massage skills. We met twice a week for a couple of months.
On day one, the group was me, one older guy, about 10 or 12 women in their 20s and 30s, and the 40ish woman who ran the school. On day 2 the other guy quit. For the rest of the course, I was the only man (naked) in a big open room full of massage tables and naked women. We were all naked, giving and receiving massages, except for breaks until the end of the day. Possibly this was to burn out any tension about nudity, if not it was just the culture of San Fransisco in the 80s. Come to think of it, it would have been really awkward dressing between rounds only to strip again minutes later.
I was comfortable with social nudity and although the situation was kind of abstractly exciting (mainly while anticipating everyone disrobing) I found that while giving massage I naturally tuned in to the personal and vulnerable story each woman’s body had to tell. Stresses, strains, and scars are written on the skin and in the muscles, and emotions like shame or sadness could be felt while passing through certain areas. The main feeling evoked was compassion. I didn’t get a hard-on because the vibe was clearly non-sexual. Context matters.
The memory that still sizzles a bit was one day when I was on the table face up, and the woman massaging me was working my thighs. This is almost an automatic erection trigger for me and I went to full extension in seconds like an inflatable emergency liferaft. I just had enough time to think “Eek!” and start mentally hissing at my dick like a misbehaving child in church. “Sit DOWN, sit down right now!”
When suddenly our teacher was at the foot of the table and calling the class to gather around with an “Oh look what I found!” tone of voice, and they did, 11 naked women gathered in a half-circle at the foot of my table, calmly staring at my hard-on. I took this in with one glance and focused instead on the ceiling. I would have expected him to roll up like a sad snail but he responded to attention like a confident runway model.
Paraphrasing, she said: “This happens with male clients all the time. Erections are spontaneous. It’s normal, often completely innocent, and nothing you ever need to do anything about.” A few students had questions and she answered them simply, and light-heartedly to reinforce the message that it was normal and no big deal.
I suspect she’d been wanting (and waiting) to make this point with the group and I was the only one present who could demo the uh… situation. I just laid there… pointing urgently at the ceiling and feeling the eyes on me in a kind of waking version of the showing-up-naked-at-High-School dream till she dismissed everyone back to their tables.
My masseuse returned to work carefully “avoiding the issue” with both of us feeling more self-conscious than usual for the duration.
It’s just a snippet out of context and it won’t mean much to you, but for me, this is like finding a shred of an ancient scroll in a clay pot: Thrilling, but poignantly incomplete.
I love bedtime stories. Listening to the voice of someone I love telling me a story at bedtime carries me along like a gentle river, and the moment of drifting off is exquisitely easy. It’s unburdened by the thornbush of anxious thoughts where we so often find ourselves after turning off the light. I also love reading bedtime stories. If there was some way that 17 year old Isaac would allow it, I’d be happy doing it now. It’s a very sweet way of being together and sharing a world. I always found it relaxed him into naturally talking about what was happening in his world. This was never the reason for reading, just a very nice side effect. Nothing else allowed him to confide his feelings and concerns so easily. We’d pause the story and explore his situation for a while.
Between the days of reading baby books and the days of reading novels, I nightly made up stories out of thin air. He was very small, but old enough to understand and love a detailed, wide ranging story. He initiated it with a passionate request that I make up a story. I suppose it went on for two or three years ( I didn’t have him full time, but often). If you imagine doing this it feels daunting and doomed to failure. Waiting for a story to collect in your head is useless. The opposite of telling a story is worrying about what story to tell. The secret is to simply begin. Obviously you need a character or situation as the first domino but you can grab one off the endless racks surrounding us and just jump.
For Isaac, who was shocked at a story about his early flashes of brilliance. Here are a few early memories of your shining mind.
First I wanted to mention two very early things.
In the first you were about 18 to maybe 20 months old, that’s a toddler. You had started walking a few months before. Your favorite form of travel was me picking you up and carrying you around. You started to talk a couple of months before this. We were in the backyard at your Mom’s old house, I was carrying you. It was a beautiful evening with a royal blue sky and a big, nearly full moon. You pointed your tiny hand and said “Moon climbing up the sky…” In case you don’t get it that’s amazing. One night not long afterwards, your mom was driving you home from day care and you were of course strapped in the back seat and said “The night is dark and lovely” You have your quirks my boy, but you have serious gifts too.
I have always been fairly bouncy and youthful. I’ve also always been vain and deeply in denial about getting older. 2 years ago, my health nosedived in a way that went from sad to frustrating to terrifying. It started with sudden arthritis bad enough to stop my aerobic routine and make keyboard and mouse use agonizing. If you know me, you know that means a lot of every day was agonizing. I rationalized that I am getting older and that I’ve earned any repetitive motion injuries with 2 decades of thoughtless ergonomics. I sucked it up.
I started having a lot of stomach trouble but it was gradual enough that it never clicked into the foreground. Whatever was happening, it messed with my energy levels. It messed with my sexuality. It messed with my sleep. I had a hundred odd little complaints. I rationalized it all as me getting old. My optimism decayed, my demented confidence that women still think I’m hot went with it. It turns out that a lot depends on that delusion for me. You might as well remove my thyroid or my knees.
I love moving, I love walking. Suddenly one day there was a tightness in my chest when going up a big hill. Over the next year, it got worse and worse and worse. All the joy in my life began to shrink and dry up like a waterhole. I was imprisoned on a small island. Walking to my classrooms the chest pain would become crushing and terrifying. I wasn’t tired or out of breath, just being squeezed by something that would pop me like a bubble if I kept moving. Worst were the weird middle of the night chest pains that seemed to come from nowhere. I think they made me the loneliest I have ever been. Continue reading
Not such a happy time. Florida. No friends. Heat like a beating. Lawns watered with sulfurous well water. A four mile bike ride to the worst school I had ever seen. 35% dropout rate: They called them “dysfunctionals”. It smelled like broccoli and peanut butter. They hit kids with a wooden paddle to punish them 1. There was no fresh air. The windows were permanently sealed slits of frosted glass. Kids had desperately scratched at the windows for a glimpse outside. A social studies teacher talked about how black people had better natural rhythm in the course of teaching class. I started to curl up and surrender inside. I began bringing a novel every day and refusing to participate. Then a four mile bike ride back.
1 One fond memory: My Dad called the Principal and told him if he ever used that paddle on me he’d come straight over and use it on him.
I didn’t know that at the time but one day the principal called me out of class to say: “I’d just like to reassure you that we will never use the paddle on you.”
Some memories of when my son was little.
I suppose these range from around age 4 to 8 or 9.
- The other day I said “Sometimes I wish life could be more interesting and surprising.” Isaac said “If you mean you’re tired of the same old thing all the time, I’m with you.”
- Streaming a very funny anime (Sgt. Frog.) on Netflix with Isaac. Isaac says: “Have you noticed that every anime has hot teenage girls in it?” me: “Um. yes.”
- The other day I was reading to Isaac and he looked up at me and said: “And the winner of the longest nose hair award is…my Dad.”
- Isaac complained about the cutesy little notes his Mom puts into his lunchbox so today I slipped a note in there that said: “Did you forget about the amazing space lizards?”
- Isaac: “Dad, where did crows eat before there were burger joints?”
- I spent the afternoon playing video games with Isaac and when I grumbled about needing to get some work done he said “Lazy Butt!” and I said, “Well you should know, you’re a chip off the old butt.”
- It was a beautiful warm spring-like day. Isaac and I went out to the beach, turning over rocks in the low tide zone, finding hundreds of little crabs. We picked up a few on our shovel and they tried to fight us. As we were leaving he said: “I guess we gave them some great stories to tell their grandchildren.”
- Over at Isaac’s school celebration for Winter vacation. A woman came over to help me open the beverages I brought. She said, “Oh, by the way, I’m Mikey’s mom.” I said, “Hi, I’m Isaac’s mom!” She noticed a beat before I did.
- Isaac put refrigerator magnets together that said: “So I pounded an elaborate bitter goddess”. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
- The other night Isaac started painting a big piece of styrofoam all sorts of weird colors, with glitter here and there. He said he was making decorations for April Fools Day.
My Great Grandfather, Karl Oscar Lundstrom wrote this letter to his wife, my Great Grandma Henrika.
Dieppe the 20th of June 1883
My dear beloved wife, live well. Many thanks for your welcome letters which came today, it was a great joy for me. Any other earthly joy can’t be compared to this one, when I heard that you are still alive and in good health. I am in good health too, thanks god, till now and God, may these simple lines find you, my noble wife by the same precious gift of grace. I don’t know anything better to wish for than that.
We have to be separated, but in thoughts we can embrace each other I hope. If God helps me, then I can take your hand once again just like the hands here above and I can press you to my heart with devoted love. May god give us soon that day.
We stayed here longer than we thought to, but now the cargo is taken in and we are nearly ready to go out to sea. I wrote a letter the 13th of this month. You hadn’t had it yet when you wrote your letter but perhaps even got it the next day, I don’t know. Please write to me again as soon as you can, so I can know how you are. Remember me to Father and Mother, sisters and brothers, relatives and friends. Tell the first and last of them, you are all remembered.
My consolation, my joy, Goodbye.
If you haven’t had the first letter yet I write the address here
Sailor K.O. Lundstrom
The Swedish ship FRANS